The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 25, 2003

View from the Roof of the World
Parshotam Mehra

Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land
by Patrick French. Harper Collins & India Today Group. Pages 333. Rs 395.

Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost LandOVER the past half a century or so, since the Chinese "liberation" (October 1950) and especially in the aftermath of the rebellion in March 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama along with almost a 1,00,00 of his people, there has been a veritable flood of books on Tibet. Not all measure up to much, some are no more than journalistic writings, others half-baked fictional emigre accounts. A few, however, stand out as deft mixtures of scholarship and first-hand acquaintance with existing ground realities. Patrick French’s excellent work is part memoir, part travelogue and part history. The book lives up to its claim of being a quest for the "true" as opposed to the "mythical" Tibet.

With no chapter headings apart from numbers, the books is divided into two nearly equal parts. The first, largely historical part, ends with a brief account of a 48-hour bus ride — "half a century ago it would have taken four months with a yak and camel caravan" — from Kermo (a city officially known as Golmud) to Lhasa. The second part is an odyssey of discovery in and around the Tibetan capital and the Panchen Lama’s seat of authority at Tashilhunpo.


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.

Contrary to 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 "crude".

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 did so.

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 solved.

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 identity intact.

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.