|Oh, those harmless dissenters
Review by M. L. Raina
Steppenwolf and Everyman: Outsiders & Conformists in Contemporary Literature, by Hans Mayer and translated from German by Jack D. Zipes. Apollo Editions, New York. Pages xviii+325. $17.95.
|The green canopy story
Review by R. K. Kohli
Trees of Chandigarh by Chhatar Singh, Rajnish Wattas and Harjit Singh. B.R.Publishing Corporation, Delhi. Pages 204 Price not mentioned.
would-be lama and ex-detenu
Oh, those harmless dissenters
HANS MAYER belongs to the generation of Marxist thinkers which rose to prominence at a time when the orthodoxies of doctrinaire Marxism were driving away free thought not only from the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, but also from within the Marxist parties in the West. Born in 1907, he has been a contemporary of such eminent intellectuals as Ernst Bloch, Ernst Fischer, Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukacs, Theodor Adorno, Frederic Antal and Arnold Hauser in the Germanic tradition, as well as of Henri Lefebvre, Merleau Ponty, Roger Garaudy and Louis Althusser in the French tradition.
Their Marxism owes nothing to the iron-clad obiter dicta emanating from the likes of Zhdanov and his thought police, nor even to the pronouncements of Lenin himself as made in that crass document called Party Organisation and Party Literature. Works such as Fischers Art and Ideology (1964), Garaudys Realism without Walls (1962) and della Volpes Critique of Taste (1979) combine the basic philosophical insights derived from dialectical materialism with a profound belief in the status of art as an intrinsically valuable product of human imagination.
Unlike Lukacs, who started in the Enlightenment tradition of humanism but compromised with the Stalinist orthodoxy, these writers and critics respect the integrity of an art work while endeavouring to interpret its socio-economic relevance. But this relevance does not stop short at tracing the homologies of socio-economic and literary structures as in Lucien Goldmann and the later Lukacs, but encompasses a larger structure of value systems and recognitions, particularly the recognition of an artists worth in spite of his ideological commitments. It was Sartre who summed this up by suggesting that Mallarme was a bourgeois poet, but not all bourgeois poets are Mallarmes.
Taking their cue from Gyorgi Plekhanov and Franz Mehring well before doctrinaire Marxism choked independent thinking about the arts in Communist countries, Mayer and others like him steered a course midway between a total capitulation to the economic determinism of the Stalinist variety and the effete aestheticism of the late 19th and early 20th century art theory. (Adorno was the only one who never accepted the so-called scientism of the vulgar Marxist aesthetic theory.)
Admittedly an admirer of Lukacss early para-Marxism, Hans Mayer does not aspire to build a theory of literature the way the Hungarian savant does. Lukacs provides an Aristotlean framework for an art work and grounds aspires of class struggle. Mayers guidelines come from Hegels dialectic that sees an unequal tension between forms and concerns of art and literature. Even though both claim allegiance to Marx, both are bourgeois European intellectuals who reject the bourgeois tradition, Mayer with sympathy and Lukacs with apparent disdain (in his later references to Solzhenitsyn, there is an appreciative realisation of the nonconformism of the Nobel laureate).
In the course of his development as a Marxist critic, Mayer, like Adorno and Benjamin, perceives the contradictions in the late stages of capitalism and fashions his writing to preserve the humanitarian aspects of bourgeois culture. Since a fair number of essays in this collection deal with German bourgeois writers, his effort is to detect anti-bourgeois traces in these writers in order to link them with his own vision of socialist culture. As Jack Zipes says in his introduction to the present book, The theme of German self-criticism is one of the leitmotifs of the German literary development, and Mayer is true to that inheritance.
Very few Marxist critics have engaged with contemporary literature with as much sympathy as Hans Mayer. Like Ernst Fischer in Art and Ideology, Mayer reads contemporary literature as inseparable from history and social dynamics. Unlike Lukacss denunciations of Joyce and Kafka and modernism as a whole, Mayers readings involve that voluntary effort of understanding which alone makes a gifted writer accessible to a discerning reader. It is this effort of understanding, this attempt to enter the inner working of an art objects configurations of means and ends that constitutes the specific function of criticism in Mayer.
Like Adorno he writes about Brecht (the longest essay in this collection is on the playwright), but differs from him both in approach and interpretative strategy. Like Adorno again, he chooses the most adaptable and resilient modes of literary expression, the essay, as his critical tool. This makes for easy accessibility of an intelligent lay reader and allows a direct exchange with the writer.
The present book of essays is not a random selection, a simple appendage to Mayers longer works (such as The Outsiders reviewed in these pages some time ago). It is unified by a theme: outsiders and conformists, people who act as counterweights to the average bourgeois men, and their role in contemporary literary consciousness. These people live on the margins of society, are designated mavericks by the social and political establishment and exercise a destablishing influence on conventional patterns of behaviour. They are not the wretched of the earth by any means. They are of the bourgeois social world but dont consider themselves as belonging to it in any positive sense. To use the current weasel word so dear to postcolonial critics, they are that worlds other. They are steppenwolves after the antihero of Hermann Hesses novel of that name.
Everyman (originating in the medieval morality play of that name) in Mayers reckoning is an average bourgeois individual, probably an anonymous, faceless figure we meet without even bothering to recognise, but who, given the levelling of the social order under capitalism, claims a democracy of equal citizenship with feudal lords. The steppenwolf, on the other hand, is a fringe figure, not really a rebel, but rather an eccentric who departs from the community. He does not threaten the social order, even though he is its not-so-hidden underside. As Mayer writes in the title essay, those eccentrics in society who voluntarily kept their distance from the ordinary routine were never seriously nor strictly isolated. On the contrary, such eccentrics were generally highly esteemed and secretly admired by those people whose society they disdained.
The steppenwolf uses low-profile techniques such as false compliance, footdragging, feigned ignorance, to quote James Scotts Weapons of the Weak, to register his presence in society. It is in this way that Mayers nonconformists operate in literature. He reads a whole range of writers from Musil, Brecht, Durrenmatt (whose play The Physicists brought fresh air onto the stuffy English stage in the early sixties), Mann, Grass, Ionesco, Pasternak and many more to draw a comprehensive map of the various kinds of nonconformism in contemporary writing.
The result is a welcome departure from not only the solidity of the many numbing dogmas of Lukacsian Marxism, but also from the kind of hammer-and-tongs ideological criticism practised by todays saloon-bar Marxists who have re-colonised post-colonial studies by merely positioning themselves in the safe enclaves of the bourgeois academy in the West.
Here it is relevant to mention that Hans Mayer left East Germany as late as 1963, two years after the Wall, and cannot be accused of harbouring ill-feelings about the then GDR. His sympathies continued to remain with the socialist ideal. His identification, therefore, with Hamlets, Harry Hellers, Ulrichs, Oskar Matzareths, Felix Krulls, Fabrice dell Donzios and Yuri Zhivagos all in one way or another standing at a tangent with their societies foregrounds an independence of spirit challenging the built-in oppressiveness of communist regimes. Without openly calling into question that oppressiveness and ranging up and down and across historical and geographical boundaries, he highlights the significance of dissent within bourgeois and communist societies.
Though not a literary theorist in the purest sense, Mayer is deeply concerned with the function of criticism in contemporary literary culture. In stressing the significance of history, he does not neglect aesthetic questions. Thus he sees the indifference of Yuri Zhivago, his reluctance to commit himself in action, as a reason for the failed epic character of Pasternaks novel.
In a statement that neatly sums up the dissonance of content and form in the novel, Mayer suggests that the story of Dr Zhivago is a story of fundamental noncommitment. Unless one understands this trait in his character, Zhivagos life becomes incomprehensible... the reader will time and again demand logic and results from a life that expressly refused both. How different is this assessment from the open denunciation of Zhivago by party hacks who hounded him to death and how close to Edmund Wilsons response at the time of the novels publication in English in the sixties.
In Musils Ulrich Mayer accounts for the disposability of the hero inasmuch as he fails to act meaningfully, and, as a consequence, fails also to determine all possibilities in advance. In Gunther Grasss The Tin Drum and Thomas Manns The Confessions of Felix Krull the same imbalance between the urge to be part of reality and at the same time be outside it accounts for the unevenness of the structure a fact Mayer seems not to deplore at all. As he says in the essay on Grass and Mann, it is more difficult in contemporary literature than ever before to attribute any kind of idea, action... to the writer himself. The bourgeois epoch of a literature which strives for the self-realisation of an artist is at an end. Consequently, both Oskar in Musils novel and Felix Krull in Manns parody epic illusions of the classic bourgeois novel. Both prefer artifice to actual individuality and both thrive as roles and fictions than as full-blooded characters, since the bourgeois epoch of late capitalism has drained the sense of reality from our perceptions. This notion differs from the metaphysics of the literature of the absurd so common in the sixties.
The long essay on Brecht draws attention to the playwrights fascination with criminals like Richard, Coriolanus, Macheath, Edward II and others from the outer edges of social acceptance. Brecht found positive traits in them and saw them as the only genuine representatives of the rapacious capitalist system in which even Galileo has had to compromise with truth for his own survival. This confirms Mayers own belief that steppenwolves survive by virtue of their compromises. Brechts famous irony, displayed in the rationale for war presented by soldier characters in Mother Courage turns upside down all heroic notions and reveals essential human cupidity beneath elegant social facades. It is in such a system that steppenwolves survive, sometimes comfortably as in Brecht, sometimes uneasily as in Mann and Pasternak.
Shakespearean fools, Homers Theristes, Molieres Alceste, court jesters, comic commentators in classical Sanskrit drama as well as servants and other lower fry have existed in literature as healthy antidotes to the stuffy formalities of social behaviour. Mayer, however, sees them replacing the bourgeois Everyman in contemporary society, thus showing up the pathological state of our social being. We can draw two conclusions from this. One, there is no possibility of returning to the heroic ideal. Two, that febrile modernity (motion without memory as someone called it recently) precludes the integration of the individual with society, a prospect gleefully celebrated in the illusionary bacchanalia, of the postmodern condition.
at the outsider phenomenon, some of us at least can
delight in the spectacle of the non-conformist, like
Shakespeares Apemantus in Timon of
Athens, shaming these woods/By putting on the
cunning of a carper.
young, its a world faith
AS we celebrate 300 years of the Khalsa, two questions arise in the minds of its followers in India and the diaspora. One, has the divine mission started by Guru Nanak and pursued in the same spirit by the other Gurus, including Guru Gobind Singh, found its fulfilment in the ongoing process of the spiritual regeneration of mankind? And, two, where do we of the brotherhood of man, all the while resisting injustice and tyranny from any source, go from here?
A firm answer to the first points to the very obvious direction for the second issue, highlighting the need for projecting the Khalsa in its true image, with the outer form matching ones actions, as Kharak Singh, editor of this book, aptly puts it. He emphasises that the Sikh Panth has the cure for the ills of mankind today.
This was the main thrust of a two-day seminar held at Chandigarh in October last by the Institute of Sikh Studies. Tastily bound and well formatted, this publication could not have come out at a better time, standing on the threshold of a new century as the Sikhs find themselves today. A majority of the papers are in English, with a few in the Punjabi language, which only points to the universality of this rather young religion and its presence in all corners of the world.
In such a literary exercise in which the outlines of the basic theme had been laid down, some degree of repetition is unavoidable, but it must be said to the credit of the participants that they have succeeded in charting a novel path, in self-realisation and inner understanding of their own religion.
Dr Kirpal Singh makes the point about Guru Nanaks aversion to the caste system, his identification with the lowly and the transformation of his spiritual self into Guru Angad, his disciple. Clearly pointing to the fulfilment of Guru Nanaks mission by Guru Gobind Singh, he quotes G.C. Narang rather effectively, to put at rest an unseemly controversy that erupted in recent times. The seed which blossomed in the time of Guru Gobind Singh had been sown by Guru Nanak and watered by his successors. The sword which earned the Khalsas way to glory was undoubtedly forged by Gobind, but the steel had been provided by Nanak.
Dr Gurbaksh Singh explains how Guru Nanak was the first sant-sipahi, or saint-soldier, and adds that a soldier fights as a mercenary to secure the authority of his master over a certain region of the earth. While the sant-sipahi loves God and fights tyranny of rulers to protect the human and religious rights of all. Dr Singh makes it clear that having launched an all-out war in the social, political and religious fields, Guru Nanak instructed his followers on sarbat da bhala (welfare of all) and to be ready to fight the backlash: Anyone who wishes to play the game of love shall have to be ready to sacrifice his life.
Writing on Love and naam, Dr Gurnam Kaur suggests that religion was taken out of the forest, of renunciation, quietism, hath yoga and hermitage and was made the spiritual way of life of the common man. She goes on to define the Khalsa and quotes the Dasam Granth Swaiyas thus: He whose mind dwells day and night on the ever-effulgent light and gives not a moments thought to other than the one. Who bears perfect love, with faith, and believes not even mistakenly in fasting, tombs, crematorium and hermitages, not in pilgrimages, not customary charities, nor a set of code of self-discipline, and when Gods light illumines perfectly his heart, then is he known as a Khalsa purest of the pure.
The second part of the seminar covers the role of the Khalsa in the 21st century, and Mr Saran Singh, a retired IAS officer and editor of The Sikh Review published from Calcutta, points out that while in the West a large number of Sikh apostates have returned to the purity of classical Sikhism as sabat-soorat and amritdhari Sikhs, in India and especially in northern belt, confusion and look-alike psychosis seems to have gripped growing numbers of those rushing into apostasy and wilfully, if foolishly, discarding the symbols in an illusory quest for glamour and acceptance.
Mr Singh goes on to highlight what he calls a multi-pronged media assault on the external Sikh identity and suggests a twofold strategy adversial forces to wean away the younger generation of fledgling Sikhs by suggesting that the terror and brutality of November, 1984, could be re-enacted. Second, to project the turbaned Sikh as a prototype extremist by means of a sustained manipulation of fashion and dress norms.
Mr Karnail Singh writes about the massive contribution of the Sikhs during the freedom struggle. But on the persistent though deceitful assurances of their rightful place in free India by top Congress leaders, Singh writes, the Sikhs decided to stay in India, prompting Campbell Johnson, press secretary to Lord Mountbatten, to state in his definitive account Mission with Mountbatten, The leaders of Muslim League and Congress had won more than either had expected. The Sikhs lost everything they valued, their homes, their property, irrigated rich lands and their holy places.
The Sikhs resorted to the dharam yudh morcha for 22 long months in 1982, and in the peaceful agitation more than two lakh of them went to jail.
Karnail Singh does not give any reasons for the Sikhs not being able to achieve more gains for themselves as the others at the time of transfer of power. But it has to be said now that the Sikhs clearly lacked leaders of vision, foresight and devotion to the cause of the Khalsa at the time.
Leaving history behind him, Dr Kuldip Singh, a noted scholar, looks into the present and the future, of ways and means of restoring the Khalsa to its primacy. In a long list of suggestions, he includes the setting up of a Gurmat university, teaching of Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script and the establishment of a Khalsa sports academy (this is being done) where the fucus initially would be on hockey, football and athletics. Dr Singh says the Panth was, and still is, passing through a wave of depression and inaction, and the one way to restore the Sikh self-respect is to follow some of the practical agenda and programmes he has advocated.
I am happy to read this recent book, possibly the first of its kind on the Khalsa appearing in 1999, and note with some satisfaction that the basic question of the relevance of the faith in the coming century has not only been addressed honestly and objectively, but inspite of a somewhat challenging journey still ahead for the flock, the book clearly points to a bright future for the Khalsa, both in India and in all the corners of the world. The underlying message is that the basic philosophy of Sikhism as enunciated by Guru Nanak and all the other Gurus, interpreted correctly, provides a lasting cure for the salvation of the turbulent mankind of today.
WITH increasing population and fast-changing urban life style, new cities are being created and old ones are expanded throughout the world.
It is in cities where residents yearn for moderate temperature, low humidity and a good micro-climate and where pollutants pose major problems. It is again in the urban areas where wind-breakers in the winter and provision for shade in the summer are necessary and where rich vegetation is a must for effective gaseous exchange.
For comfortable urban life, avenue trees and shrubs are very important because adequate space for parks and gardens is at a premium, agricultural space is not feasible and forests and plantations inside a city are hardly viable.
Trees, which because of their huge surface area per unit of land, serve an extremely useful purpose in moderating the impact of urban development by (a) improving air quality, micro-climate and landscape and scenic beauty, (b) abating noise pollution, (c) checking wind velocity and (d) reducing stress on human beings and harbouring wildlife, including birds and insects. Perhaps because of such environmental services, the need for trees is felt more in cities than in villages. A new concept, urban forestry, is fast emerging. World over, the tree component in cities exists in the following three possible forms:
Tree clusters on the outskirts of the city, mainly as recreational spots serving as resting and nesting home for wildlife and serving as sink for city pollutants (practised in old cities like Delhi and Ludhiana where within the city space for trees hardly exists).
Trees are planted along roads or in and around gardens, playgrounds, institutes and in small clusters and patches (possible in planned cities like Chandigarh, Mohali, Panchkula); and cities are carved within the forested area (possible in those areas which are rich in forests for instance, the Scandinavian countries where a major part of land is under forests).
Though the concept of urban forest is relatively new, Indian planners had the vision of systematic planning of the tree component for the urban forest of Chandigarh. The landscape and treescape planning in the mid-fifties in this city under the able leadership of M.S. Randhawa deserves a special mention. His experiment is now known the world over as the Chandigarh model. Many times I have had the proud privilege of sharing the Chandigarh experience at international gatherings.
There have been some efforts to describe the mantle of vegetation of this young city, fondly known as the City Beautiful, the city of trees and shrubs or the city of hariyan chariyan te chitiyan lariyan (green bushes and white cars). The latest effort is by Chhatar Singh, an IAS officer who prior to his present assignment with the Union Government in New Delhi was the Deputy Commissioner of Chandigarh, Rajnish Wattas, a Professor in the College of Architecture, Chandigarh, and Harjit Singh Dhillon, horticulturist with the Chandigarh administration. Their laudable effort in the form of his book has been aptly dedicated to the late M.S. Randhawa who, as rightly pointed out by the authors, sowed the seeds of the City Beautiful and nurtured its blossoms. The book, the authors claim, has been designed to provide the basic information about tree plantation in the city.
The book starts with a chapter on native trees of the city. The site of the city was part of the erstwhile Ambala district. Perhaps, the name Ambala (amb-wala) is derived from the mango tree which dominated the area. In addition there were peepal, shisham and kikkar trees.
The second chapter discusses planning of tree planting. Since Jawaharlal Nehru conceived the city as symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, the planners provided a good green garland on its periphery. To this young city the rich tree density served as the lungs. This is perhaps the reason behind its fast and healthy growth:
Randhawa selected the tree species scientifically. He tried to maintain a balance between the native and exotic trees. Exotics were introduced in an attempt to foster an image of international relationship in the city parks and roads. Unfortunately, however, the examples of exotic trees quoted in the book are misleading. Kadam and the white-siries are Indian trees and not exotic. The dominant species of eucalyptus in Chandigarh is E tereticornis and not E citriodora as mentioned. Instead of quoting a particular species the general term eucalpt would have sufficed.
After highlighting the characteristics of the site, the book discusses the master plan and the seven types of roads, popularly known as V-1 to V-7. Page 11 attempts to categorise the city trees on the basis of the architecture of the tree canopy and crown. However, it has many misspelt names of the trees and misleading terms. The authors have given a new abbreviation Ex instead of e.g standing for example.
The next chapter deals with the present treescape of the city. Avenue plantation here is one of the most significant and prominent features of the city. The choice of the species was based on the conceptual guidelines involving the scale and significance of the road and the direction of sunlight. It lists a few tree species which were planted according to the original plan but could not survive and were replaced by others such as chukarasia, kusum, devils tree, makhan and pink cedar. It describes the types of trees along V-2 and V-3 roads and V-7 paths.
With stunning pictures through wide angle/telelens, it has covered the landscape elements of the Capitol Area, Sector 17 complex, the Museum and Art Gallery and the various gardens of the city, apart from the famous Sukhna Lake and the cremation ground.
Though the chapter has been imaginatively attempted, a few glaring mistakes could not be overlooked. The photograph of the amaltas tree (p 45) is doubtful. The common name of Koelreuteria apiculata has been given as Koelreuteria. In fact, it is chinese rain tree. The authors call the garden in Sector 36 as a garden of rare plants. Surprisingly, the first paragraph under this title on page 50 says, Here old groves of mango (Mangifera indica), date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), jamoa (Eugenia cuspidata) and shisham (Dalbergia sissoo) can be seen. further, some more species covered under this area of rare plants are the most common and native trees like pipal, burr and indian coral.
In the next chapter, The seasonal panorama, the book covers ornamentally rich trees. Trees of simbal, kachnar, gulmohar, cassia and lagerstroemia, apart from jacranda, samunder phall, kassod, silver oak, silk cotton and australian kikkar add to the beauty of the city. Though this brief chapter is loaded with eye-catching pictures, some of the trees like Magnolia grandiflora and Pyrus communis have been misspelt.
The city forest forms the fifth chapter of the book. Since there is no conventional forest or plantation of social forestry, agroforestry, commercial forestry, etc. the chapter attempts to discuss the tree component around the city. Soil erosion along the slopes of the Shivaliks in the north-east and the seasonal streams famous as Sukhna choe and Patiala-ki-Rao on the eastern and western rims respectively has been checked successfully by bringing the area under a dense tree cover. Indigenous trees lke mango, jamoa, khair, dhak, ber, neem, pipal, kachnar, babool, dek and jungle jalebi are the common trees in these forests. This buffer zone, apart from conserving the soil, serves as a home for wildlife and recreational revenue for city residents.
However, the first line of the last paragraph of the chapter (p 72) is rather amusing. It says, Thus, the trees in the forest area are one of the main features of Chandigarh. My son studying in Class VIII, while browsing, made two comments. First, there is no forest where tree is not the major component. Second, the sentence conveys as if it is only in the forest area of Chandigarh where trees constitute the main feature. As a matter of fact, it is the urban city (rather than the forests) of Chandigarh where trees are the most striking feature.
The next chapter is devoted to the lessons drawn from tree plantation in the city. The text is theoretical and not based on evaluation and analysis. The captions of the pictures are misleading. On page 74, it says Trees can shade buildings from hot sun. The picture shows just the reverse. Likewise, on pages 76 and 77, the legends claim new designs for fences and guards. However, nothing seems new. The picture on page 78 depicts the trunk of an adult tree with chopped off crown. However, its legend traces the damage to the absence of a tree guard. Most of the problems are rather common and not specific to Chandigarh.
The next section comprising 60 per cent of the book is a directory of trees. This section has been divided into two chapters namely, the flowering trees comprising 26 species and evergreen trees covering 32 species. Such a division is again intriguing. This unfortunately conveys as if there must be trees which are non-flowering. Incidentally, all the trees covered are flowering trees. If the learned authors mean that flowering trees are those which have big beautiful flowers, many of the species included in this chapter do not match the standard.
Further, devoting a chapter to evergreen trees and ignoring deciduous trees implies that the latter types do not exist in the city. The sita asok (p 123) and fountain tree (p 125) or hollock (p 131) and some others (p 83, 85, 89) have been described as evergreen trees but included in the section of flowering trees.
On the other hand, white siris (p 139), tun (p 147) bahera (p 199) haldu (p 137), described as deciduous, have been covered under evergreen trees.
A tree like Cassia siamea which goes leafless from mid-February to mid-March in Chandigarh has been described as evergreen tree on page 99. The picture of this tree on page 98 is also doubtful. On page 141, the devils tree has been described to possess leaves in a whorl of five to seven in number, but in the supporting picture a whorl of nine is seen.
At many places, the legends do not belong to the pictures. On page 83, for example, the picture shows the phyllodes and inflorescence with yellow flowers instead of the leaves and flowers of the australian kikar tree. Further, instead of flowers, petals are shed from samunder phall tree.
Each of the 58 trees grouped in these two chapters has been described under seven headings: botanical names, family, common names, location in Chandigarh, dimensions, form and description. The plants have been arranged alphabetically as per botanical names in the chapters. However, technically, the botanical name of every plant misses the authority which otherwise is required as per the rules of nomenclature. I agree that as claimed by the authors in the preface, the book is meant for the lay reader. Nevertheless, either the technical names should have been deleted or if given should have followed the rules. Many technical terms used are such that my students after referring to this book in the university library started doubting themselves and lost their self-confidence.
Many important characteristics of the trees are missing. I have tried to confine my comments to what is included in the book. Because there are many common trees available in Chandigarh which have been ignored. Instead, uncommon ones like Diospyros embryopteris have found place.
In a team of authors,
each one is expected to organise and perform a set of
clearly defined functions for the success of the venture.
The book seems to have been the responsibility of Mr
Chhatar Singh and the result is good. The book has been
printed on the best quality imported glazed art paper
which has enhanced the otherwise impressive overall
production. Photographs are by S.M. Dhami, perhaps a
professional photographer and the second author, Prof
Wattas. When it comes to scientific information,
especially in a book which has a long shelf life, a
casual approach could have been avoided if had it been
subjected to pre-publication vetting.
Saga of would-be lama and
READING this book is in a sense the completion of my travels in Tibet. Last year when I trekked to Tibet I could feel the scars of violence on the Tibetan plateau. Ruins of devastated monasteries and the rubble of prayer stones had their own tales to tell. Reading Palden Gyatso was like witnessing the suffering and violence the Tibetan people have been going through for half a century now. Despite worldwide appeals, the torture has not ended.
Palden Gyatso was a Tibetan monk who was captured by the Chinese when he was about 28 years old during the early years of Chinese occupation and was released only when he was nearly 60. He spent the prime of his life in Chinese prisons where he was tortured and often forced to confess to crimes he never committed. What is heroic about his tale is that despite all this suffering, he refused to give in to his oppressors.
Although Gyatsos grandmother repeatedly narrated to him the story of his birth in glorious language seeing him as an incarnation of a senior lama he displays inherent humility and modesty while talking about himself. This further highlights the fact that historical events bring out so many heroic aspects of a peoples life that one never could associate with them.
The book also throws light on the recent history of Tibet after the Cultural Revolution of China. It graphically lays bare the Communist system of brain-washing and inflicting a reign of terror on political opponents. The system of obligatory self and mutual criticism imposed upon prisoners intensified physical torture.
If someone did not confess to any lapses in his practice of the socialist code of conduct, he was branded as arrogant. Thus there was no possibility of anyone being left alone even in captivity. Anyone could be charged with any crime if someone implicated him.
Most political prisoners lived almost at a starvation level and they were not allowed to practice any aspect of their traditional culture.
One can imagine how suffocating this kind of prison life must have been for the inmates. The prisoners had no news of their families and some of them, if they had the good fortune to be released, were often denounced by their families. For the families too were terrorised into denouncing them. This denunciation by their families further alienated them and as a result, many committed suicide.
Reading this book is like going through a nightmare. One is horrified to know the kind of violence that is perpetrated in the name of equality, justice and progress. Such atrocities are bound to be committed when any people think that they alone have access to Truth and they have the right to impose it on others. These oppressors could be religious fanatics trying to reform the heretics, colonisers trying to educate the colonised or communists attempting to modernise the feudal ways of living; there is only a difference of degree in these acts of violence, the form is the same.
Tsering Shakya in his preface to this fascinating personal document has very aptly summed up the feelings of the Tibetan people which echo the feelings of all oppressed people. He writes:
The Tibetan people cling proudly to the civilisation that flourished on the windswept Himalayan plateau and they lament its destruction. They do so not because they had found a paradise on earth or because their society was perfect, as many of those supporting the Tibetan cause would like to believe. Tibet was no Shangri la; it had its own imperfections and impurities. Our history is governed by moments of brilliance and profound creativity, punctuated by follies of leaders, the corruption of the ruling class and the poverty of the common people the history of nations all over the world.
It is a moving account
of the type of happenings in the recent history of Asia.
Like all authentic documents, it makes a deep impression
on the reader and forces her or him to reflect on the
norms of collective action that could generate greater
equality and peace amongst human beings.
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