My beloved Nepal

A day after the massacre in Nepal's royal palace, a Nepalese citizen wrote of her anguish to a friend in America: "Everyone I know gathered with their families today and prayed in their homes.... Please pray for us."

Her letter appeared on my e-mail screen, and I wept for her desolation. I did because the land in which she lives - so mired in poverty, so futile, so alien to so much of the world, and yet so extraordinary in its wild nature and in its faces - is now part of my blood and spirit.

My professional life has been journalism. But the grail in my life has been the high country, which brought me to Nepal's Himalayas more than 20 years ago and a dozen times since then to climb and to lead mountain trekkers. Some of my closest friends are the Sherpas of the Solo Khumbu, the part of the Himalayas surmounted by Everest. And today the newspaperman's fixation with a story as eerie and medieval as the royal bloodletting in Kathmandu spins in my head, colliding with my affections for the place and the memories of it.

It might be that American TV watchers and moviegoers are so drenched with the violent melodrama of fiction that events in Nepal seem less than startling, which might explain a certain blandness with which the story has been reported here. Was this one more crazy outburst from the remnants of feudal life? Yes, but consider the monstrosity of the events: Here in the 21st century, a monarch's palace is turned into a slaughterhouse. The son of the king becomes the leading suspect. As his mother and father are being borne to a cremation site on a river called sacred, a royal council confers on the suspected murderer the right to the throne as he lay in a coma. Now he is dead, and his uncle is king.

Thousands of Nepalese men produce the 30 cents' worth of rupees needed to have their heads shaved, the historic symbol of mourning in their Hindu culture. And as they grieve, the dead king's brother and his spokesmen deliver a startling new version of the massacre: An automatic weapon exploded accidentally, wiping out nine members of the royal family.

The politics of this economically wretched and backward little country are never remotely understood by its visitors, partly because nobody who lives there remotely understands them. Industrially and technologically, it is an island of impotence wedged among the giants or potential giants of the Far East, China and India. The king lost some of his power to the crude attempts at democracy a few years ago, but nobody knows who really runs the country when it runs at all - the inept parliament, the fragmented military, or the inept monarchy, and now the ghosts of that monarchy.

A lot of that sounds like run-amok Shakespeare. But last night I wrote to one of my friends in Kathmandu, and I wasn't much absorbed by the melodrama. What I knew was that although the monarchy seemed totally unable to uplift the lives of the 23 million impoverished Nepalese, it was part of the center of those lives, the continuity in their lives. And now this core of continuity, something stable, had been torn from them, and they were stunned and devastated.

And why should that affect me? I remember coming down from the base camp of Everest two months ago, and in the village of Lukla buying a portrait of an old woman of the mountains, a woman with deep creases carved into her face by labor and time. It was a face of utter dignity, of quiet acceptance but also of a quiet will to make the best of life, whatever it offers. It is a quality I've found in the faces of so many of the poor of Nepal and which I'll admit has made me pretty much a softie when I walk with them or banter with them.

Is this quality a manifestation of their faith? It is partly that, I'm sure. So it was not only the glory or the great mountains that I remembered in my condolences to my friend, but the sense of trust and kinship I had come to feel when I'd travel there. I told him his country and its people, poor and confused as they are today, had changed my life. And although I am Christian, it and they had deepened me spiritually. I remembered meeting a boy on a trail near Ama Dablam just two months ago, and exchanging that lovely greeting with him: "Namaste." In its most lyrical translation from the Sanskrit, it means, "I praise the God who lives within you."

He had floppy hair and laughing big eyes. I probably will not see him again. But it was a connection and a rather profound one for me, young with old, Hindu and Buddhist with Christian. It will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Jim Klobuchar is a retired columnist for The Minneapolis Star Tribune.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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