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Eight years after Nepal lost its beloved king Birendra, his queen Aishwarya and eight other members of the royal family in a midnight massacre in the tightly-guarded Narayanhity royal palace in Kathmandu, the nation is on the verge of losing a key eyewitness who could have thrown light on the national tragedy that led to the unravelling of monarchy in the world’s only Hindu kingdom.
Sarala Shrestha, now almost 92, entered the palace as a teen after she caught the eye of King Tribhuvan, the grandfather of the last king Gyanendra, and became his concubine. After the king, who had two legally married queens, died in 1955, Sarala continued to live on in the palace with the status of a junior wife of the dead king.
She witnessed the reign of Tribhuvan’s ambitious son Mahendra, who seized power with the help of a coup in 1960 and banned the political parties. She also witnessed Gyanendra’s decision to follow in his father’s footsteps in 2005.
In between, she also witnessed the stunning carnage in 2001 which wiped out Birendra’s entire family and paved the way for Gyanendra’s ascension. During the shootout, which was initially blamed on Birendra’s drinks and drugs-crazed son Dipendra, Sarala was inside the palace with Mahendra’s wife, former queen mother Ratna.
However, the three-member high-level enquiry commission formed by the then prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala did not question either of the women. Now, with the new Maoist government of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda ordering a fresh investigation into the dark deed, it could be too late for Sarala to throw light on the enigma.
The 91-year-old has been admitted to a private nursing home in the capital. Besides breathing troubles and fever, she is also suffering from lapses in her memory. She remembers Tribhuvan and his death but professes to be unaware of the fall of monarchy in Nepal and the transformation of the palace into a museum.
White-haired and gaunt, she is now dependant on Ratna for her upkeep. The former queen mother is also the only member of the erstwhile royal family to visit her.
Though conditioned by the code of secrecy and silence that prevailed in the palace, Sarala however does not believe the enquiry commission report that s frustrated crown prince Dipendra, whose parents were opposing his wedding plan and threatening to disinherit him in favour of his younger brother Nirajan, killed nine people before turning the gun on himself.
"It is a mystery," she repeatedly told Nepal’s official media in her first interview. "It is a mystery who fired the gun and how he did it."