Troubled times

A grim story of a ‘class enemy’ that stands out as a tremendously
moving and important document

Memories of Life in Lhasa under Chinese Rule
By Tubten Khetsun. Trans. Matthew Akester.
Penguin Books.
Pages xx + 318. Rs 450. 

Reviewed by Parshotam Mehra

FEW accounts of life in Lhasa under Maoist rule (ca. 1959-79) are as moving as the one these pages proffer. Tubten Khetsun (TK for short) was arrested while defending the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, the Norbulingka, on the morrow of the Tibetan ruler’s escape from Lhasa in March 1959. After four years in prison and labour camps, he was to spend another almost 20 years in the Tibetan capital as a requisitioned labourer and "class enemy".

His description of all that he went through is not only singularly dispassionate but also detailed—and gripping. It is a straightforward narrative, free from cant, hyperbole and clich`E9. More, its author offers graphic accounts of the launch of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region (1956) and almost two decades later of Mao’s much-trumpeted Cultural Revolution. TK’s "vantage point" was that of the ordinary Tibetan caught up in the maelstrom of many-faceted life in the Chinese-occupied Lhasa. His story is vivid, self-explanatory and needs little by way of elaboration. All the same, for a good understanding, a few benchmarks of recent developments should help place it in sharper focus, if also a proper historical perspective.

At the time of his release from Drapchi prison (March 1963), in terms of commercial activity, there were a few privately run sweet tea shops and a few people who set up stalls along the main roads selling candy and cheap cigarettes from China. Fewest of all were those who managed to get permits to sell bread, and all the other shops in the market place had been closed and their occupants were now working as construction labourers.

In 1968 the Tibetan new year was to fall on the same day as the Chinese new year spring festival when TK was arraigned before his accusers "to speak honestly" about the "old world" of Tibet. After he owned up that Tibetan society was "extremely dark, extremely barbaric and extremely cruel as well as extremely backward", he was told that that was not the way to make a confession:

"they all shouted at me at once, about things that had nothing to do with the original accusation `85 even worse, having to stand bent over without putting my hands on my knees made my waist hurt and my face swell up, and as I had a cold at the time, I was constantly dribbling, which worsened the suffering".

Meantime, TK was selected to work in the Potala helping to sort out the scriptures and identify those worth preserving. Presently, the Chinese decided upon establishing the Tibet Academy of Social Science and placed TK in-charge of one of the six working groups to take care of the "Archives". His job was to seek out and copy required texts, and not write false interpretations of them. Before long, the Academy dispatched TK, with an assistant, to commission prints of the Buddhist cannon from the printing house at Dege, in Eastern Tibet.

Apart from recounting the principal events—the 1959 uprising, the launch of the Great PCR, the executions of 1969-70, the destruction of the celebrated Ganden monastery, Tibet’s largest and most famous—there are fascinating asides on the fate of Lhasa’s Muslim community, public health and moral taxation. Largely though it is in the evocation of the petty cruelties of Maoist rule in a straightforward, rancour-free recounting of the banal details of "normal" life in the occupied Tibet that gives the book its power. Its unforgettable images of barefoot prisoners carrying their Chinese guards piggyback across icy rivers; of local officials having "class enemies" lay out slogans in white pebbles on the mountain side; of soldiers burning harvested swamp grass for fun or hounding invalids from their beds in the middle of the night!

In the same genre as Palden Gyatso (with Tsering Shakya) Fire Under the Snow: the Testimony of a Tibetan Prisoner (London, 1998), Ani Pachen (with Adelaide Donnely), Sorrow Mountain: Tthe Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun (Tokyo, 2000) and Tenzin Choedrak (with Giles von Grassdorf), The Rainbow Palace (London, 2000), KP’s Memories, stands out as a tremendously moving and important document. First published in Tibetan at Dharamsala in 1998, it has appeared in its present incarnation largely through the efforts of Robbie Barnett of Columbia University in New York, Tashi Tsering of the Amnye Machen Institute at Dharamsala and Anne Routon of Penguin Books.