DEATH OF A MONARCH

Nepalese of my generation associate the end of the 104 years old Rana oligarchy with a garlanded king in Nepalese mayelposh suruwal dress waving his right hand to acknowledge the multitude that thronged the Kathmandu airport to see him arrive from India after a short exile. He was a powerless, dethroned king returning now as a sovereign Head of State. For most of us the iconic imagery heralded the advent of a new open democratic Nepal and the king – Tribhuvan – instantly became the Shah king most revered and recognizable after the founder of the dynasty and his ancestor King Prithivi Narayan Shah. That day has been marked in the Nepalese calendar and imprinted in our consciousness as Democracy Day, the 7th day of the Nepalese month of Falgun, 2007 B.S. Although I was born 4 years later, I cannot yet erase the memory from my mind.

A king at 5 Tribhuvan led a sequestered life in the Royal Palace of Narayanhiti in Kathmandu amidst the trappings of Hindu God-king monarchy far removed from the mundane life of his subjects. After he came of age the Rana rulers of Nepal paid him obeisance while denying him any political power. He was placed on the Serpent Throne to reign but not to rule. In time this situation became very frustrating for him to bear and he was looking for an opportunity to break free.

Coronation at Five

His first break if it can be called that came when for the very first time a reigning king was given permission to head for a foreign land by the ruling prime minister Maharajah Juddha Shumsher Rana. The trip was ostensibly for medical consultation for a weak heart but the king had far more important an agenda in mind than his heart. It was his opportunity to measure the rumblings of discontent in India over the yoke of colonialism and to secretly meet with Nepalese revolutionaries fighting for Indian Independence and, subsequently, bent on bringing down the Rana regime in Nepal. Too, there were the disgruntled “C” class Rana family members, scions of the Bir Shumsher and Bhim Shumsher families, who were unceremoniously removed from the Roll of Succession by Maharajah Juddha in 1933 A.D., a mere year after he assumed his office. They were hell bent on bankrolling the Nepali revolutionaries to bring down the house of the Rana in which they were no longer playing any part.

It was during this visit that my father had the extraordinary opportunity of looking after the king, of getting to know him intimately and of empathizing with him. A major general then my father was serving in the Burma front where the Nepalese Army was fighting the Japanese together with the British. As Calcutta was where the king was visiting, Maharajah Juddha deputed his son Kiran, who was very familiar with the place, to look after King Tribhuvan and make his sojourn there comfortable. The rapport my young father struck with the king and the trust bestowed on my father by the king would culminate a decade later in my father being elevated to the rank of Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Nepalese Army when the king regained sovereignty following the ouster of the Rana regime. Thirty-four higher ranking Rana officers in the military were retired and my father was entrusted with the important post when the democratic nation building was about to begin and no solid base even existed. My father General Kiran was just 35 years old!

Shakespeare’s Brutus in Julius Caesar reasons thus, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries.” King Tribhuvan was the one who dared to break from his privileged yet frustrating circumstances and seek asylum at the Indian Embassy risking the throne of his Shah dynasty, no mean feat this. Although naysayers may always question his wisdom and even his motive, it did bring about a monumental change in Nepal for the better. Unfortunately, he would not live long enough to see any substantive development in the fortunes of his countrymen. He was ailing with a heart condition.

An intimate account of what went through the mind of King Tribhuvan that led to his defiant act can be gleaned from the sympathetic writing of Erika Leuchtag, a German physiotherapist who was commissioned to provide healing therapy to the Senior Queen. Her family had fled Hitler’s Germany and with her mother landed in Simla the summer capital of the British in India. She had earlier been employed by the Maharajah of Patiala to heal his maharani. Erika’s growing love for the Nepalese royals and her disdain expressed at the Rana rulers during their twilight years is worth reading in her memoir, “Erika and the King”. The King and his family were lodging in the incongruously named bungalow “Happy Cottage” inside the compounds of the Narayanhiti Royal Palace where his life was anything but happy.

Erika Leuchtag with King Tribhuvan and his two queens at wedding of Princess Bharati their daughter in Calcutta 1951

While King Tribhuvan’s legacy is unquestioned his gregariousness and personal indulgences are often highlighted unkindly by some and disparagingly by others juxtaposed with that of his austere and aloof son and successor King Mahendra. Erika paints a different picture. She writes,”Travelers to Nepal, Westerners who came and who left to write books of what they had seen, wrote what they had been told about the king, what the Ranas told them. Thus it was believed beyond the Himalayas that Tribhuvan was dissolute, a man who passes his time with drunkenness, lechery and opium, a man with the physique and spirit of a weak girl. Such a picture fitted the tradition of the debauched oriental raja, just as the Ranas fitted the picture of the strong grand vizier, and this was how they wanted it. It was easy for the British and for the Indians to believe this, so long as the Ranas sent their baskets of fruit, held tennis parties, drank tea and ordered done what needed to be.”

Erika continues,”The debauchee was in fact a muscular man who learned judo in his youth, who could ride two horses at the gallop with one foot on each, who could play most sports superlatively well. The drunkard was in fact a man who would do no more than touch his lips with spirits in courtesy, because by alcohol the Ranas had destroyed his father and grandfather. The lecher of the lies was in fact a man with respect and love for his wives. As for taking opium, his only drug was cigarettes. He was proud of his fine body and jealous of his strength, not in masculine vanity, but because this was one thing he had preserved from the Ranas. As the days passed I saw him as a man ready and waiting, a desperate man and a bitter man, yet keeping despair and bitterness in patient check.”

King Tribhuvan and entourage aboard a ship near Naples during his first European visit

King Tribhuvan suffered a heart attack and was advised by his doctors to undertake a foreign trip after his recovery to consult expert cardiologists. This trip he undertook in the summer of 1953 to go to Zurich for consultation. This was his first European visit. He recovered and came back to Nepal. However in the summer of 1954 he suffered a second heart attack and after recovering yet again he visited Zurich in November 1954 and was admitted to the Canton Hospital in Zurich. The doctors allowed him to visit Nice in January but he suffered from another heart attack on 31st January. He was treated there by Professor Luffler from Zurich Hospital as well as two other experts who were called, Professor Parkinson from London and Professor Lauder from Vienna. His recovery was slower as he unfortunately contracted influenza. Only on 9th March could he manage to return to Zurich by train. He was dying now.

General Kiran reading the proclamation

My father as Commander-in-Chief of the Nepalese Army visited the king in Zurich towards the end. King Tribhuvan was pleased to see him but knowing that his end was coming, he asked him to return to Nepal and send Crown Prince Mahendra to Zurich to be at his bedside. What was there left to do now but to offer puja to the Gods and Goddesses of Nepal to bless the king with speedy recovery and longevity? The end came on Sunday, 13th March 1955. He was just 52 years of age.

There was one last act my father performed for the king, reading a royal proclamation on Radio Nepal informing the Nepalese the king had passed away in Zurich – the King is dead, Long Live the King!

My father would see him next time inside a casket that was specially made and flown to Kathmandu in an Indian Air Force plane that landed at the Gauchar Airport on 17th March 1955. I remember my father telling me the story of how he went to pay condolence to King Mahendra and his brothers Prince Himalaya and Prince Basundhara and how they were mourning shell-shocked in a corner of the room, wearing white, with tonsured head and dark shades and how his own heart was about to burst with sorrow. He loved the king so.

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