This is both a travel book and a political discourse with the fate of the Tibetan people in the balance. The title refers to a comment made by the Dalai Lama in 2009. He had declared with his own touch of gentle irony, “I think India and Nepal are receiving some special blessing from Peking.”
Bruno’s report comes after visiting Tibetan communities across the globe, in the United States, Europe, India and Nepal. His sympathetic account examines the question of the future of the Tibetan community when the Dalai Lama passes on—he is now eighty-four. Elderly Tibetans find the possibility unthinkable, though they are aware that there is no way that this can be avoided. Younger members of the community are more discreet about the matter but are nonetheless fiercely anxious without coming to any consensus on what will happen.
What is interesting is that the author has never visited Tibet but edged around its borders. However, all his opinions about Tibet and its leaders are gleaned firsthand from those he has interviewed during his wanderings.
It is quite obvious that the Tibetan community has been able to set down roots in many countries through shared knowledge, faith, medicine and literature. Bruno refers to it as an empire of ‘global tourism’ which has gradually become one of the causes of the world. As references to the community have gradually increased, Bruno’s test is the Internet where he finds that the Dalai Lama is more googled than the presidents of Turkey, France and Israel put together. Of course, mysticism and dharma have a powerful influence over a jaded world soul, but the problem is that Bruno fears the attraction is beginning to erode and, with the passing of the Dalai Lama, will have little or no traction left.
This is mainly due to Chinese strategy—the art, they call, of winning without having to fight. It consists of spreading what is widely known as ‘fake news’ but is actually disinformation and feting visiting lamas so that they are won over to the Chinese side. For its part, India, which hosts the Dalai Lama, is hesitant about giving Tibetans permanent resident status in the country, increasing the refugee population’s uncertainty. Additionally, India is curtailing the activities of the Tibetan Government in Exile which is an added blow. In the meantime, China has blocked the migration route from Tibet to India through talks with Nepal, putting another obstacle in the way.
However, young Tibetans living in the west are, like most young people everywhere, becoming increasingly divorced from the cause of their lost homeland. Most of them are born outside Tibet and have grown up without knowing the mountains or encountering Chinese oppression. They are the weak links in the chain of tradition.
Since the situation needs a context, Bruno mentions that in the seventh century CE the Tibetans had the upper hand which enabled them to capture an important Chinese city and thus force the Chinese emperor to send one of the princesses to Lhasa as a tribute. Since then, however, the equation is heavily loaded against the Tibetans.
The author notes that U.S. president Donald Trump has ceased mentioning the Tibet issue in his talks with China, and the Bharatiya Janata Party has made polite noises about hoping that the Dalai Lama will be able to find a peaceful and democratic solution to the matter and by so doing return honorably to his homeland.
“Many Tibetan refugees,” Bruno writes, “ pushed away by time, boredom, globalization, and soft-power war with China, are moving on.” The dream is ebbing.
TIBET’S COLOURS OF SEPARATION
The Tibetan community and Tibet have always interested Indians—this is partly because the Dalai Lama took refuge in India and also because the sleeping dragon, China, is an uneasy neighbour. There are Tibetan communities scattered across the country and as the Dalai Lama grows older, the question ‘what next?’ is a fairly common one. Who will the next spiritual guide of the Tibetans be? The Dalai Lama has already said that choice by reincarnation should be set aside.
Madhu Gurung’s collection of eleven short stories delves into the lives of displaced Tibetans. She has grouped the stories into five sections following the colours of the Tibetan prayer flag—blue, white, red, green and yellow, and some of these colours have been woven into the fabric of the stories. The author talks about the flag and how it has inspired her stories, adding that the colours are reflective of the five elements. Occasionally this does seem a trifle forced.
Gurung sets the tone for the book by giving a broad outline of the Tibetan resistance movement that began in the 1950s and continuously shifted along the belt of the Himalayas to Nepal and Bangladesh, where many Tibetans fought in the War of Independence and were known as the “Phantoms of Chittagong.” India, in fact, recruited a force of Tibetans after its humiliating loss to China in 1962 called the Establishment 22 and references to them recur throughout the book.
This is why the first story is about a boy called Sangay who is forced to flee from his village in Tibet by the Chinese and who has to wait till he is thirteen to do anything constructive about resistance. Significantly the village he leaves behind is called Zinda or ‘life’ in Hindi. Sangay wants to stay alive, joins the resistance and ultimately is able to bring his mother to their home in Dehra Dun which is also called Zinda.
All the stories are about heartbreak and hope. The Tibetans living in India constantly have to face new challenges and fears. There is a timeline in the anthology spanning the first arrival, the adaptation to new circumstances, and then the lives of those Tibetans who are born and brought up in India with only tales of a lost homeland to cling to. There are stories about quests for Indian passports, a monk’s search for love and more which bring variety to the theme. The title story of the anthology gets its name from a poem by activist Lhasang Tsering who was, in turn, inspired by the songs of the great sage Milarepa.
Two of the accounts are based on the author’s personal experiences—her trip to Mustang in search of the once legendary Chushi Gangdruk warriors and the story “Amala” which is about Gurung’s mother. They stand apart from the rest of the fiction and possibly deserved a section to themselves. Gurung’s stories are detailed and are obviously born out of research: she has worked with organizations such as Oxfam and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is based in Dehra Dun where many of the Tibetan refugees live.
The aim of the book is to remind the reader of his or her roots. What would you do if you were uprooted like the Tibetans? Above all, perhaps it is best to be wary of threats that lie on the other side of the mountains. There is much for the sensitive reader to relate to.
THE BATTLE FOR BELONGING TO SHILLONG
Shadow men is a dark tale veiled in the mists of Sikkim. The protagonist staying at a friend’s cottage witnesses a murder, and life is not the same again. Raseel has already endured the shock of having her parents murdered at the hands of a household domestic they trusted implicitly. Fate seems to be repeating itself when she visits Shillong in the hope of reliving her happy schooldays there.
Time, however, has brought change to the Abode of Clouds: now a separate state with a poetic name of its own. Shillong is full of outsiders who settled there before statehood and now has an under current of resentful young locals. They need jobs and they need new lives but the men are stifled by the matrilineal society to which they belong. In frustration they unleash violence on the outsiders, dkhar, as they call them—a label denoting the affluent, educated settlers from West Bengal, or the Hindu, Bengali-speaking migrants—and force them to leave the state.
Bijoya Sawian knows her Shillong, coming as she does from a well-known family in the region. The book covers the aspects of Shillong that many people relate to: a tangle of fortune tellers, a day at the races in elite company, the haunting melancholy of Ward’s Lake with its boats and its whispers of suicide, the girls of Loreto Convent surreptitiously looking for boys to date, teas perfectly served with Mahari and lace doilies, and militants.
The author shifts viewpoints in an attempt to maintain the pace but ultimately rather than being a straight murder mystery it becomes a tangle of Khasi tribal issues, and whether the identity of the murderer can be revealed, and if so, to whom should it be revealed, given the fact that even the cop who comes to investigate is married into a suspect’s family. The idyllic Shillong of Raseel’s girlhood memories is long gone and the place is plagued by issues of political and tribal leadership. However, the darkness of the book along with the mists is very similar to Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss in its poetry and feeling.
Sawian is also aware that she needs to fill in the gaps in the outside reader’s knowledge base because much of the issues may seem abstruse—the simplest is the origin of the name Meghalaya which came from linguist Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay and which spurred the statehood problems. Unless one is familiar with the history, dkhars may find the data a rather confusing overload while still being fascinated by the locale.
The battle for belonging to the North East continues in the other two stories in the book, over shadowed as they are by the sweep of the main story. In “The Flight” for example, Mawli who is from Aizawl loses her heart to a man from Assam, still an outsider and causes subtle chaos for her mentor. “The Limp” centres on the Bengali Nripendro Roy, who in his eighties after the funeral of an old Khasi friend, looks back on the Shillong he migrated to in his twenties and feels that he was right to migrate to the scent of pines, despite all problems outsiders like him had to face. Both stories have the same subtlety as Shadow Men but are easier for non-North Easterners to relate to.
BRITISH INDIA’S SPYING ‘PUNDITS’ IN TIBET
After travel to Tibet was restricted by the Dalai Lama in the mid-nineteenth century, the British were determined to explore the Forbidden Land because they saw it as an integral part of the ‘Great Game’ that they played with Russia and its spies. To get over border restrictions, they inducted a series of Indians whom they called ‘Pundits’ and who infiltrated Tibet under the pretext of studying Buddhism. One of the first of these was Nain Singh Rawat who was relatively overlooked by history in the wake of other Pundits like Saratchandra Das who penned diaries.
Rawat came from the Kumaon region and braved many struggles to reach Lhasa, such as obstreperous Chinese border officials who doubted his identity. From a challenged background he managed to forge ahead, crossing difficult terrain and carrying out his task. He was also meticulous in his measuring of temperatures at different altitudes, not to mention getting readings of the stars in a manner more accurate than his British counterparts. Rawat was one of the first outsiders to visit places like the Thok Jalong goldfield which he declared as one of the coldest places he had visited.
Agarwal describes the means by which he hid his notes in his prayer wheel and within the special compartments in his bags which concealed his geological equipment. Occasionally he was forced to bury them underground when he suspected that they would be discovered. The Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama turn out to be teenage reincarnations with three questions that they ask all travellers who come for their blessing.
Deepa Agarwal’s book contains stories of explorers filled with rushing rivers, spies and robbers, emphasizing the motivational aspect and with several references to Nain Singh’s ‘silver tongue’ that enabled him to talk his way into caravans crossing into Tibet. Nain never gave up despite the obstacles that fate put in his way and the Nain Singh range of mountains to the south of Pangong Lake carries his name. The message is that children should do the same and the language is kept deliberately simple so that comprehension is easy. However, for those adults who have not come across Rawat, the slim volume will be of interest too.
What is obvious, of course, is the magnitude of the Chinese threat that today has encompassed Tibet. Though not part of the Great Game, the Chinese acted as watchdogs over the country.
Anjana Basu is the author of six novels. She has had a book of short stories published by Orient Longman; the BBC has broadcast one of her short stories, and her poems have featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. She has appeared in The Antigonish Review. The Edinburgh Review and The Salzburg Review have also featured her work. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses in Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. She has worked on the dialogues for the film, The Last Lear, directed by Rituparno Ghosh.