29
May

When There Was a King There Was Unity: An Exploration of Nostalgia for the Monarchy

Abha Lal

A decade after the end of the monarchy and the establishment of democratic rule, it is not uncommon to hear many Nepalis referring to the time of autocratic governance as “the good old days.” For many across classes, castes, ethnicities and genders, the kings were “Vishnu incarnate” and monarchy is the only suitable system of rule for the “Hindu kingdom of Nepal.” My interest is in exploring why it is that the monarchy is remembered with such fondness by people despite growing political legitimacy of democracy in the past decade, and what kinds of narratives do people tell about what life in Nepal was like when it was a kingdom. I argue that while for some, a preference for monarchical rule is a political commitment, for many, nostalgia serves as a discursive tool for critique of recent political developments. The complex sets of reasons that lead to people voicing their maya (love) for the king is tied to the Nepali national story, influences of Hindu nationalism from India, and disillusionment with the democratic governments’ inability to act on the promises of a “New Nepal.” Nostalgia for the monarchy is not about a desire for its restoration, but a reaction to the crisis of governance today. The function of nostalgia for a lost political past can be thought of in terms of its ability to provide what Kathleen Stewart calls “cultural form–” “In positing a ‘once was’ in relation to a ‘now’ it creates a frame for meaning, a means of dramatizing aspects of an increasingly fluid and unnamed social life. Nostalgia is an essential, narrative, function of language that orders events temporally and dramatizes them” (Stewart 1984). My research is ethnographic and based on conversations with 30 people across Birgunj, Kathmandu and Illam. While due to the scope and nature of this project it cannot be used to make generalizations about all of Nepal, with interlocutors from different geographical and social locations, I hope to provide insights about how many conceptualize the political state of the country today in relation to the monarchical past. Through an anthropological dissection of people’s narratives, I hope to demonstrate the myriad of uses that nostalgia can be deployed towards, and a “love” for the king cannot be simply understood as a desire for return.

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