June 11, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Gita Aravamudan

Escape from Kathmandu...

It all began at Chitwan National Park, Nepal, on June 2. That's when we first heard the news of the massacre at the King's palace in Kathmandu.

Actually, the day began with a perfect jungle morning, replete with bird song. The sky had cleared up beautifully and Eshwar, our serious young Nepali guide, was waiting outside to take us on a crocodile safari.

This was just Day Two of our eight-day package tour of Nepal. My husband, Dan, and I were taking our first holiday as a couple after nearly 30 years. We had chosen Nepal because neither of us had been to this part of the world before. But the snow-clad Himalayas, which we had come all this way to see, had been playing hide-and-seek with us, swathing themselves in clouds whenever we reached a vantage point.

We had spent the previous day walking through the dusty, litter-strewn streets of Kathmandu, through the ancient wooden structures on Durbar Square and into a musty old building where the tiny, living goddess, Kumari, sat in all her red-painted splendour.

Nepal struck me as a very Hindu kingdom caught in some kind of time warp. A weird amalgam of young trekkers and ancient hippies, crumbling shrines and massive pagodas. Where women with bright vermillion partings genuflected cursorily as they passed old, tiny shrines sprouting out of rubbish dumps. At Budhanilakant, we saw an ancient figure of Vishnu relaxing on his serpent in the open air. If that was not unusual enough, the statue -- located in the middle of a pond -- was tended by just a couple of child priests.

The presence of the royal family was palpable everywhere. Their pictures adorned the shops. Their gestures were engraved in stone.

TODAY, though, was another day. Almost another world, it seemed. The only things we were looking forward to were a little bit of bird-watching and rhino-spotting in the Chitwan forests. In fact, the crocodile safari had just been thrown in for that extra dash of excitement. Little did we realise it would pale in the light of future events.

For some reason, Rajesh, our waiter-cum-main-information-source, looked rather distressed as he arrived with our sumptuous breakfast of eggs, toast and pancakes. Suddenly, as if he could restrain himself no longer, he bent forward and whispered hesitantly, "Sahib, I don't know how true it is, but I heard this morning ki Nepal royal parivar mein sab log mar chukke (Sir, I don't know how true it us, but I heard this morning that all the members of the Nepal royal family are dead." Then, he retreated a few steps, as if to disassociate himself from the bad news.

Sab (Everyone)? How sab? How could everyone die all at once?

"All gunned down as they ate dinner," Rajesh looked nervous. "They say someone from the family was the killer."

Who? He wouldn't, or couldn't, say.

We went off on our crocodile safari without knowing if Rajesh's bizarre information was true. In the jungle, there were no newspapers, no cable television. Like Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks, all we could depend on was the jungle telegraph.

A couple of hours later, we tottered back to the lodge, still recovering from a scary canoe ride through the crocodile-infested Rapti... The ride actually ended rather rudely, with our fragile little craft sinking into the river like the Titanic. Fortunately, we were close to the shore, so there were no casualties.

By now, our jungle residence was agog. It was true! King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya had been killed. Many other members of the parivar lay dead or dying. Someone had heard it on BBC. Travellers coming in from Kathmandu confirmed the morning's rumour. There had been a massacre at the Royal Palace and, yes, Crown Prince Dipendra was the prime suspect. He had killed his family and, then, himself.

It was unbelievable!

"Must be a world record," said Rajesh, his eyes brimming.

Our lodge boasted of a solitary, tiny television set, on which we could only access the local channel that, for some reason, seemed to be beaming the frozen image of a pagoda. There was no news. Nothing.

Nor was there any time to speculate. Tourists were arriving by the busload. The season was at its height and, ironically, Nepal Tourism had declared a Festival of Life from May to July. Our safari programme had to go on as per schedule and we were to leave the next day. But could we? Someone said local flights had been cancelled.

THE afternoon saw us seated, not very happily, on an elephant in the next installment of our holiday -- a ride into the jungle to spot wild animals. Along with us were two old American women who seemed to be veteran travellers. They had some more news.

"We managed to listen to the BBC," one of them said. Apparently the manager of their lodge, who had cable television in his house, had invited them to watch the news with him. Only three minutes had been devoted to the carnage, they said, and, from what they understood, the reason seemed to be something about a disagreement over an arranged marriage. Strange, we thought, in a country where arranged marriages were the norm.

Deep inside the jungle, the Sama bird sang mournfully in the trees as we watched a baby rhino disappear with its mother into the bushes. A group of Indian tourists passing by on another elephant called out, "Is it true about the killing? Do you know?"

We began to worry. Would we be stuck in the jungle forever? Would the buses run? As we came out of the National Park, our elephant had to wade though belly-deep water and scramble up a slippery, slushy slope. As we clung on for dear life, Dan spotted a new group of tourists entering the jungle on another elephant.

"Are you coming from Kathmandu? Are the buses running?" he shouted, as we crossed paths. This was becoming a bit too much for me, this back-to-back communication on elephants.

"Yes, yes," someone replied through the dusk. "Sab teek hai (Everything is okay). The buses are running. We just arrived."

Back in lodge, everyone was watching the cremation. Some were crying. The rain, which had been threatening all evening, came down in buckets. By midnight, it was actually thundering on our zinc sheet roof, creating havoc with our already frazzled nerves.

EARLY next morning, Rajesh arrived with both a pot of much-welcome coffee and some good news -- the Greenline bus to Pokhara, our next stop, was leaving on time. "It's good you are not going to Kathmandu," he said. "I believe there were riots there."

Though the domestic flights were still not plying, he had heard that international flights had taken off. I wondered about Uma Reddy, the young businesswoman who had travelled with us from Bangalore. She had brought her school-going daughter for a short vacation and had opted to stay at in a hill station close to Kathmandu. They were scheduled to leave Nepal today. Would they have taken off?

The air-conditioned Greenline bus was big, comfortable and very empty. As we travelled along the scenic road, winding its way beside the enchanting river Thrishuli and through the green bosom of the Himalayan foothills, the royal massacre seemed like some distant, unbelievable horror story. We stopped at a charming riverside resort for breakfast and, when we got back in again, we had our first brush with reality. Tourists from Kathmandu, on their way to Pokhara, joined us.

They spoke of riots and blanked-out television channels, of local newspapers that carried only eulogies. A family from Calcutta -- they had two small kids -- were scheduled to go to Chitwan after Pokhara. They wondered if they should cancel that leg of their package and return home. But how? They had heard that international flights were also being cancelled.

POKHARA is a beautiful little lakeside resort, famous for its views of the massive Annapurna range and the strangely-shaped Machhapuchhre or Fishtail mountain. It is also the starting point for many trekking trails. Which could be why it seemed a a teeny bit closer to reality.

Our family, which is scattered all over the world, had been frantically calling the hotel in which we were to stay. Only later did we came to know how frightened they had been by the scenes of violence shown on Indian television. We, of course, had no clue. Though we did have cable television in our room, the Indian channels were blanked out. Even the BBC was yanked off within a couple of hours. We were back to square one as far as news was concerned.

As we washed up, a car fitted with a megaphone came cruising down the single commercial street near our hotel. We couldn't understand the Nepali announcement but, within moments, all the shutters were down. I saw a couple of men with tonsured heads on the streets. "They are mourning for the King like he was their father," someone said.

Tired of being cooped up in the hotel, we decided to walk down to the lakeside for a breath of fresh air. Everything was closed. Even the boats were moored. As for the Himalayas, they had swathed themselves even more firmly in the clouds.

At the hotel, though, there was some encouraging news. The BBC channel was back, as was Zee News. The next morning, we caught our first glimpse of a snow-clad mountain. Machhapuchhre emerged briefly from the clouds, stunning and beautiful, as we sat listening to the news. King Dipendra was dead and his father's brother, Gyanendra, who had been in Pokhara during the massacre, was now king.

By now, the street was awash with tonsured heads. Shining pates with a wispy bit of hair in the middle. Anger and disbelief had replaced sorrow. Everyone in King Birendra's family had died in the killing spree. But King Gyanendra's wife, son and some relations had been spared. The crowds on the street were turning militant.

Yet, we took our scheduled conducted tour. Everywhere, we saw impromptu shrines to the deceased royals. Photographs of the late couple stood in the centre surrounded by incense, flowers and oil lamps. Crowds thronged to pay their respects and, everywhere, men, young and old, knelt to get their heads tonsured.

The anti-Gyanendra processions had started. On seeing a militant-looking mob, our bus driver took a devious route. We were standing near Devi's Fall, a strange underground waterfall in which a Swiss couple named Davis had disappeared many years ago, when someone told us that more royals had died.

When the new King was taken out in a procession, there had been riots and tear gas shells were fired. By the time we returned, the violence had reached Pokhara. People were running and pelting stones. We were offloaded from the bus some three kilometres from our hotel and asked to find our way back. One brave taxi driver agreed to drop us to our destination if we paid him Rs 150. "Indian, not Nepali."

As we got down in front of the hotel, a big slogan-shouting procession came down the road. Our cab driver just grabbed the hundred rupee note from Dan's hand and fled.

Towards evening, things began to gain a semblance of normalcy. The boats were back on the water. At the tiny island temple in the middle of Phewa Lake, we met our friends from Calcutta. They had decided to skip Chitwan and return to Kathmandu, even though their flight back home was three days away. "They tell us the Greenline bus will go tomorrow," said the father.

"No." A woman tourist who overheard us as she as she got into her boat seemed to have more information. "We just came from Kathmandu by the Greenline. The driver said they are cancelling tomorrow. A curfew has been announced in Kathmandu. No point going there." The bush telegraph was at work again.

But it all seemed so far away as we floated on the tranquil lake. As if on cue, the clouds parted and the entire Annapurna range came into magnificent view. We watched the peaks shimmer in the setting sun, even as King Dipendra was being cremated on the ghats of the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu.

PORBATH, our appropriately named man from the travel agency, came bright and early -- his shaven head glistening head in the sun -- to take us to the Greenline bus station. There, we got our next major jolt. The buses, like the lady had said, were not running. There was no way they could reach Kathmandu before the curfew, which was scheduled to start at noon. We were told we could try again tomorrow.

But our flight out of Kathmandu was tomorrow! It was again beginning to look like we would be stuck here forever. We started counting our money. Could we afford to stay in Pokhara for four more days?

The next flight to Bangalore was only on Sunday!

Porbath sprang into action. He rang the airport. "Some local flights are taking off," he shouted, as he ran out of the bus station and jumped onto his bike. "Get your bus tickets cancelled and follow me to the airport."

The Greenline man stamped our tickets and told us we would get our refund in Bangalore.

At the airport, there was chaos. Many exotically-named domestic airlines in Nepal crisscross the country like taxis. They are quick, cheap and totally unpredictable. Shangri-La was taking off later. So was Buddha. But we got two seats on Cosmic, which was leaving in 15 minutes.

Half-an-hour later, we reached Tribhuvan, still in a daze. Sandesh (how do they get these perfect names?), our tour operator in Kathmandu, hadn't turned up. He probably he didn't even know we were here.

There was pandemonium at this airport as well. Flights hadn't taken off. The curfew was just an hour away. Bleary-eyed trekkers with heavy rucksacks sat hopelessly on the floor. We rang Sandesh, but he was stuck. He told us to get hold of a taxi and reach our hotel quickly. We found a man with a decrepit jalopy who was willing to help us for Rs 300, Indian.

Back in our familiar hotel -- this was where we first stayed when we began our Nepal holiday -- we felt warm and safe. Bindu Sakya, a member of the family that owned the hotel, told us not to worry. "Consider this your home," she said. "Stay as long as like." The Indian channels were back on television and we saw, for the first time, the riot scenes that had frightened our families back home.

Meanwhile, journalists had started arriving from all over the world; we soon found some friends in the hotel. By now, the curfew was on and the streets were totally deserted. Not even a dog moved. Everything was so still. Every now and then, open vehicles full of gun-toting, tonsured policemen zoomed through. Apparently, all police and army personnel, as well as all male government servants, had been ordered to shave their heads.

Bindu told me that Uma Reddy's flight had been cancelled and she had to buy a fresh ticket for the next day's Indian Airlines flight to Bangalore via Delhi. But, as she was driving down from her mountain resort, her car was stopped by an angry crowd about eight kilometres from the airport. "Uma and her daughter walked the rest of the way. She left her suitcase behind. I have to send it to Bangalore. But she made it to the flight."

We still didn't know if we could leave the next day. All the Royal Nepal Airlines flights had been cancelled ever since trouble broke out. Besides, if there was a curfew, how would we reach the airport? If we did somehow manage to reach and they cancelled the flight, would we have to sleep the night there?

These were imponderables that, just then, had no answers. We hadn't visited the Pashupatinath temple, but decided to give it a go-by. By 9 am, we were packed and ready, waiting to hear if our flight would take off at 2 pm. Someone said there would be a curfew again at noon. By 10 am, we came to know that the flight was definitely taking off as scheduled. No one, though, had any clue about the curfew.

Bindu packed us off to the airport by 11 am. "If you are stuck," she said, "just give a call and we'll pick you back somehow."

Tribhuvan airport was packed chock-a-block with tense, weary travellers. It was hot and humid and there was no place to sit. No queues. No announcements. Yet, just being there was sheer bliss.

Finally, our flight took off, filled with relieved tourists. Beneath, in that beautiful land, the bizarre drama continued to unfold. There were so many unanswered questions and no real answers. Perhaps, there never would be any.

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