The historical account is brief but inimitable. Tibet’s
relationship with China was at once complex and interlocking.
The Fifth Dalai Lama reached his goal — a well-nigh autonomous
Tibet — "through sheer diplomatic skill." During the
18th and 19th centuries, the Chinese influence was "largely
ceremonial rather than substantive." The Qianlong emperor
conquered Tibet "through kindness." In the event, the
land of the lama was controlled but "no effort was
made to assimilate" it into China.
popular belief, the 13th Dalai Lama (d. 1933) was a clear
failure, his reforms "overturned" by the
"entrenched conservatism" of the monastic
establishment. Not long after he died, an inspection of his army
and its equipment revealed a pathetic state of affairs. The
Lee-Enfields were "disgracefully dirty", half of them
did not work; the machine-guns jammed on firing. The drill,
dressing and marching were "bad", their standard
With a motley
crew, the journey to Lhasa was anything but uneventful and the
tariff abysmally low. The bus ride cost a measly $ 24. For an
additional $ 170 one could join a tour group. There was a catch,
though: "you were not allowed to buy a bus ticket
unless" you joined a tour group! The Chinese, Tibetan and
Muslim travellers sat at the front; the tour group at the back.
It was an "uneven" group: a hefty German woman with a
"tiny" Hong Kong Chinese "attached to her like an
incubus", three heavily prepared Japanese businessmen, a
dreary but amiable couple from France, several nervous South
Koreans, a sort of hippie from the Czech republic, two Israeli
men, an Indonesian-Chinese husband and wife.
The Potala did not
impress. Like "a flat of scenery suspended in the
distance", it looked "much smaller" than
expected. "Much stronger and more real" were three
truckloads of Chinese soldiers parked in front, watching over a
vast, flat, empty space.
The author ran
into a number of interesting people, space forbids more than a
brief mention of a couple of them. Sonam, a member of the old
aristocracy now in her late 60s, had willingly embraced the
Communist Party. Her class background, though, later landed her
into trouble. Her unspeakable crime: spilling some ink, by sheer
accident, on a poster that said "Long Live Chairman
Mao", that she had made. Her salvation from six years of
prison and humiliation came only when she "confessed"
that she had done it on purpose! She was a survivor who not
unconscious of the risks she was taking in speaking to the
author and did not go "cold with fright" when as she
Another person the
author met was Wang, a dedicated Chinese Party worker who had
gone to Tibet in the early 1950s to spread communism. His job
was to help begin land reforms. Under the Cultural Revolution he
was charged by the Red Guards for taking the capitalist road. He
suffered ten years of imprisonment and worse. Looking back, he
saw Confucianism as the bedrock of his upbringing and education.
Mao, he seemed to suggest, was temperamentally a "wrecker
and a rebel" among a people who prized conformity.
His encounter with
the Dalai Lama who alone has kept the Tibetan issue alive for
half a century makes for fascinating reading. The problem here,
he avers, lies not with an autocratic ruler but "with
conservative popular opinion". Mao, the Dalai Lama recalls,
had interacted "simply, with no air of pretence", the
Zhou, "too clever", may have been lying. Zhou was
"very polite-too polite."
For the record,
the Dalai Lama left Tibet not because he was against reform:
"The problem was the way the Chinese were handling reform
— too quickly." Did he ever worry that he had abandoned
his people? No, he had "no regret". It was, he is
convinced, the right decision at the right moment. Should be
return and work with the Chinese? This is not the issue, he
responds. Even if he returns, the Tibetan issue will not be
The author’s own
"sense" is that the only realistic hope is for the
Tibetans to work within the Chinese system and wait for the day
when there is reform in Beijing. The latter may then permit
Tibet "genuine autonomy" so as to keep its unique
There is much more
to this gripping narrative than this summary. There are many
breathtaking accounts of both victims as well as perpetrators of
Mao’s Cultural Revolution, of nomads in the wild in whose
tents he stayed, of young nuns who continue their war against
their rulers and their ways.
The young, barely
37, Patrick French who won critical acclaim for his Younghusband,
the last Great Imperial Adventurer (1994) has also written Liberty
or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division (2000).
That he writes well would be an understatement. The truth is
that he makes for excellent reading.