Tales of Tibet and Tibetans continue to sell well to an English-speaking readership. Home to the mysterious, the demonic, the keys to the mind and humanity’s redemption, ever since Herodotus wrote of gold-digging ants there, Tibet has been ‘a land simply like no other’, in the words of Alexandra David-Néel, the first European woman to win the ‘race’ to Lhasa during the early 20th century. Like places of fable everywhere, armchair explorers far outnumber their more intrepid counterparts, and even today, when railroads and highways crisscross the plateau, books continue to be the vehicle for the majority of would-be Tibet explorers, due to restrictive and expensive permits and frequent lockdowns imposed by the authorities.
For the past few decades, discourse on Tibet in the English-speaking world has largely been produced outside of it. The nature of this discourse, too, has undergone a sea change since Tibet first entered the general lexicon of news, politics and travel during the late 19 century, from one concerned with geographical exploration and geopolitics to one largely dominated by spirituality, and, more specifically, how those in the West can learn from Tibet, and why they should. The Tibetan side of this conversation is led by a formidable entourage: a Nobel Peace Prize winning spiritual head who has topped Watkins’ 100 Spiritual Power List since 2012; jet-setting incarnations and teachers joining prominent neuroscientists in the search for universal happiness; monks volunteering for their experiments and giving TED lectures. Today, more than any other major world religion, Tibetan Buddhism appeals to (or is marketed towards) the hip, the environmentally friendly, and those slightly disenchanted with the consumerist ways of Europe and North America, and increasingly, of China too. The rest of lay Tibetan society has been swept along to complete a chic portrait of kindness and non-violence. Tibetans are the “baby seals of the human rights movement”, according to scholar and translator
Such wide-eyed focus on the spiritual and compassionate ignores the fact that parts of Tibet’s history have been as violent, and its society as militarised, as anywhere else in the world. “In a land as lawless and as uncertain as ours, a rifle was an essential part of a man’s life,” one inhabitant of Kham, in east Tibet, wrote of the early 20th century. The arrival of communism on the plateau did not go unchallenged. When, by the end of the 1950s, it had become clear that the collection of farmers and nomads who had taken up arms against the communists could not defeat the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the field, the resistance leadership regrouped in India and Nepal and resorted to conducting guerrilla raids on Chinese troops and infrastructure inside Tibet. In this they had the support of the CIA, which provided training, weapons and funds from 1956 until the early 1970s.
The activities of the guerrillas sat uneasily with much of the Tibetan exile leadership, and were eventually brought to an end in 1974, after the Dalai Lama recorded a speech commanding the fighters to lay down their arms, and had it carried up to be played at their base in Mustang. Since then, the narrative of those who fought the first waves of the communist advance, and the CIA-backed guerrillas has been, for the most part, absent from the Tibetan story propagated by the exile government in Dharamsala. Twenty years after the disbanding of the Mustang force, Jamyang Norbu, a prominent activist, writer and former member of the resistance, wrote of his hope:
That the present attitude of Tibetan officials, Buddhist followers, Western supporters and intellectuals, who regard the resistance movement as an embarrassment – either because it somehow detracts from the preferred peace-loving image of Tibet as a Shangri-La, or because the resistance committed the sin of taking weapons from the CIA – will change and a more realistic and inquiring attitude take
Sides already taken
In recent years, a number of works have been published that deal specifically with the armed resistance in Tibet and Nepal, although the vast majority of these have been authored by foreign writers. Kaushik Barua’s Windhorse is the first major fictional treatment of the topic according to its publisher HarperCollins, and is indeed the first major fictional treatment on anything Tibetan of late. Recent offerings, such as Thubten Samphel’s chang-soaked search for a new in-exile language and vocabulary in his novel Falling Through the Roof, and Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s memoir A Home in Tibet, both treated history, legend and landscape as part of a living consciousness that Tibetans shared, as something that even if handed down by those who had fled, needed to be preserved, nurtured and lived. This is not the leitmotif of Windhorse, which is a straightforward action-adventure novel, by an Indian writer, written for an Indian audience that already knows what side it is on concerning the ‘Tibet-China’ issue.
It follows the journeys of several Tibetans from different regions and backgrounds, as their lives are disrupted and their livelihoods destroyed with the arrival of the PLA in Tibet, as they flee to India and eventually join the resistance movement. Beginning in the late 1940s and ending in the mid ‘70s, the struggle takes place on the global stage of the Cold War, for high stakes, and is injected with a heady mix of espionage, intrigue, heroism, love and loss. There is a deadly escape across the Himalaya; recruiters for the resistance stalk the stinking alleys of Majnu-ka-Tilla, the Tibetan settlement in Delhi; a secret training camp high in the Rocky Mountains is used for guerrilla war training, and a love story unfolds.
It is away from the high-paced narrative and in the writing of more mundane everyday scenes that Barua’s research for Windhorse shines through, and his story is at its most interesting. He accomplishes no small feat in managing to write between what Thierry Dodin and Heinz Räther have called the ‘Shangri-La versus Feudal Oppression’ binary, which continues to characterise much discussion on Tibet today. (The two poles of this binary can be seen on display in Kathmandu – at ‘China’s Tibet Bookstore’ on Mandala Street in Thamel, and in any of the Buddhist book shops surrounding Boudhanath stupa). The Chinese takeover was not accomplished at a single stroke on the battlefield, but gradually, through intrigue, persuasion and eventually strength. During much of the 1950s, areas of eastern Tibet were home to garrisons of PLA troops who distributed money, luxury items and promises of influence along with their ideology, which played into local politics and enticed some to the communist cause, while driving others from it, to flight or armed resistance.
Riwoche, in Kham (the home of Lhasang, one of the novel’s protagonists), is a site where this less than black-and-white arrival of communism is subtly depicted. While the PLA troops conduct brutal struggle sessions and send undesirables away to re-education camps and forced labour sites, Lhasang and his friend Dhondup’s furtive night-time smoking sessions also undergo radical changes with the arrival of cigarettes: “There was no need for the tiresome packing of the spindly pipe, for thumping out the burnt tobacco while another lot was being pinched into submission. Now the tobacco came in perfectly shaped cylinders of paper whose walls crackled as it burnt.” Dhondup, the son of a servant, later decides to join the communists and their mission of “cleaning out the old”, along with a number of others in Riwoche from the lower rungs of society who have grievances against notables or landowners. They are attracted by the promise of being “born again… an equal, as good as anyone in the village”. The story, however, leaves for India with Lhasang and his family once it becomes known that the Dalai Lama has fled Lhasa. Those Tibetans who stayed and did their best to cope with communist rule (the vast majority), alas, do not feature significantly in
The historical setting is extremely well researched. So much so, that in places it seems that historical characters and events have provided more than just the framework for the narrative, and more than just inspiration for the creation of characters. Thupten, the leader of the resistance in the novel, is a particular example. The member of a prominent family, he makes his money prior to the communist occupation as a rough-and-ready trader supplying opium to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Needing a reason to travel widely without arousing suspicion once he decides to organise the feuding clan chiefs of Kham to fight the PLA, he puts the word out that he is gathering wealth and jewels for a life-giving ceremony in honour of the 14th Dalai Lama. After the rebellion begins, he commands a section of the Tibetan forces, and flees to India to regroup once it becomes apparent the PLA cannot be defeated in open conflict. During the fighting, his only daughter is killed by a Chinese bullet, leaving him with a lifelong hatred for the communists.
All of these events in the fictional Thupten’s life will be familiar to anyone who has read Four Rivers Six Ranges, the biography of Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, who organised and led the Chushi Gangdruk force that fought the PLA in Central and Eastern Tibet, or Warriors of Tibet, a biography of Rapten Dorje (‘Aten’), a guerrilla from Kham who also fought the PLA before escaping to Nepal. The life of Barua’s Thupten seems to be a kind of cut-and-paste combination of these two figures. The section in the US training camp where Lhasang, Ratu and the other fighters are trained by the CIA in intelligence gathering and guerrilla warfare borrows heavily from John Kenneth Knaus’ memoir of the CIA-Tibetan operations, Orphans of the Cold War, from the recruits’ christening of a first-seen aeroplane as namdu (‘sky boat’), and the naming of the camp itself as dhumra (the ‘garden’). In what is clearly a piece of historical fiction, one wonders whether a brief acknowledgments page at the end of the novel listing the works consulted, or a mention of the historical characters who feature so largely in the events Barua is fictionalising would have been too much effort, especially, when by Barua’s own admission, the tale of the Tibetan armed struggle is one which deserves more exposure. Instead, there is only a rather lazy part-dedication of the book to “the brave women and men who inspired this story”.
Following a ‘struggle’ in Riwiche, where Dawa, a former landlord, is beaten to death in front of a stunned and paralysed crowd, and the news that the Dalai Lama has fled Tibet, Lhasang’s family make the journey over the Himalaya and through Bhutan to the sweltering plains of India. On the way, they meet Ratu, a grizzled ex-member of the decimated resistance, who also blurs the Shangri-La/feudal oppression boundary by revelling in the bitter irony that the facial disfigurement caused by a PLA soldier’s grenade has hidden the previous scar he was given as a young man when his Tibetan master whipped him after his crops failed: “Funny that I needed the Chinese to screw me over so I could forgive my landlord.”
In Delhi, Ratu, Lhasang and other exiles meet Thupten, who is in contact with ‘Andy’, an American intelligence agent willing to provide weapons and support for the Tibetans’ cause. After receiving training in the US, they set up base in Mustang in Nepal, and begin launching raids inside Tibet. Support from the US, however, is contingent on a larger realpolitik agenda, and ceases after the Nixon-Mao rapprochement makes its presence felt in the novel. Isolated in the freezing mountains, running short on equipment and weapons, politics again hampers the fighters, but this time it is in the form of an order from Dharamsala to lay down their arms. “Dharamsala doesn’t want its children dying on a lonely hill,” reads the message, poignantly showing both the geographical shift of the guerrillas’ spiritual guide and centre of allegiance, as well as the beginning of a new political policy in which they will have no role. Many opt to surrender to the approaching Nepali army, and the novel ends with Lhasang being paraded through the crowded Durbar Square of Kathmandu.
A proxy conflict
The verdicts of Windhorse’s reviewers in the Indian press have been full of praise for Barua’s portrayal of what remains a lesser-known, but tragic story of one of the Cold War’s proxy conflicts. However, one suspects that this acclaim arises more from an appreciation of Barua’s choice of subject matter than from the actual crafting of the novel itself. The language of the novel is direct and simple, and at times approaches the style and complexity expected of a book aimed at a more juvenile audience. The plot moves far too quickly to allow any real depth of character to be created, with the possible exception of Norbu, whose childhood and adolescence in India provide a site for some introspection and questioning of identity and belonging. However, Barua’s reticence to claim fully-formed and believable characters hailing from Tibet is perhaps understandable (Norbu’s story, however, whose life in Delhi at a distinctly St Stephen’s-esque college, comes closer to Barua’s own, and so he can be given fuller treatment). Writing as he does from an outsider’s perspective, and with the ever-ready possibility of controversy arising from a reductive or half-baked portrayal of subjects whose relationship with metropolitan India is at best tenuous, fleshing out a sympathy-arousing historical narrative already familiar to his Indian audience was certainly the wiser choice. The storm in Kalimpong following Kiran Desai’s portrayal of the town and its recent history in The Inheritance of Loss no doubt would have loomed starkly familiar to Barua, who originally hails
Windhorse does, in places, make for exciting reading, although as a teenager who devoured Peter Hopkirk, Fiztroy Maclean, F M Bailey and every other author remotely connected to espionage in Central Asia, I am perhaps more susceptible than most. Where the pace slows down enough to allow an enunciation of the nuances, subtleties and brutalities of the coming of communism to Tibet, a considered and nuanced picture is painted, and one that is worth reading. Barua also steers clear of patronising and exoticising his subjects, something not always managed in mainstream Indian writing about the peripheries of Southasia and their inhabitants.
The use of Wylie transliteration throughout the novel (a system for transliterating the Tibetan script using Roman characters coined by American academic Turrell V Wylie in 1959, now generally confined to academic writing, and which presupposes a knowledge of the Tibetan script) is neither necessary nor aesthetic. ‘Tibet’ is rendered as ‘Bod’ in the speech of Barua’s characters, which grates; the simple use of an umlaut would far better capture the actual pronunciation of ‘Tibet’ in Tibetan, which comes closer to ‘Bö’, or ‘Phö’. The use of Wylie also distracts the uninitiated reader into wondering how to pronounce delights such as ‘sdig-pa’, and creates other needless tongue twisters.
Failed freedom fighters
Tibetans gradually became ‘baby seals’, fully equated with non-violence and compassion, throughout the last decades of the 20th century. In 1974, the guerrilla group in Mustang was disbanded; in 1988 the Dalai Lama put forward his Middle Way proposal to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, in which he dropped the call for complete independence in favour of autonomy within China. A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, paying tribute to Gandhi, the founder of “the modern tradition of non-violent action” in his acceptance speech. Four years later, in 1993, actor Richard Gere used his speech at the Oscars to highlight the human-rights abuses going on in Tibet. Surviving ex-members of the Chushi Gangdruk force were granted an audience with the Dalai Lama in December 1992 and issued with certificates thanking them for “serving the country with full dedication”, although generally, the Middle Way and non-violence has taken almost complete hold of the government-in-exile’s activities and programmes, and those speaking from outside this position have frequently found themselves in hot water in Dharamsala.
It is not as if these voices do not want to be heard. In English, Mikel Dunham’s Buddha’s Warriors, John Kenneth Knaus’ Orphans of the Cold War and Birgit Van de Wijer’s Tibet’s Forgotten Heroes, among others, have all made extensive use of oral interviews to build more detailed pictures of the resistance. Further, the Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala has published a number of works on the same topic in Tibetan. In the narrative of the gentle, compassionate Tibetan who we sympathise with today, it would appear that mention of how some sections of the Tibetan population fought the communists – or indeed that Tibetans are capable of militant politics at all – has become unwelcome, if not specifically prohibited. In an interview with the BBC in 2002, Lhasang Tsering, the president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, expressed how he believed such a disavowal of a more militant politics had resulted in the present impasse, and in being at the complete mercy of the Chinese leadership: “There is this sense of complacency, we are self-congratulatory on our success,
we are the most successful refugees… We have failed as
The current militarisation of Tibet
In March this year, the International Campaign for Tibet released a report on the current militarisation of the Tibetan Plateau, based on photos and comments posted on the microblogging site Weibo, by Chinese tourists visiting Tibetan regions between 2011 and 2013. What emerged was a picture of a zone in which communications and access to the internet were frequently suspended or unavailable, while soldiers and riot police were deployed en masse at festivals and prominent buildings, and numerous checkpoints dotted roads, contributing to an atmosphere of intimidation and unease. A comment posted by one visitor in 2012 read: “Only in Lhasa can you experience such a tense atmosphere, everywhere you can see People’s Armed Police standing guard, the Police Association, Auxiliary Police, the People’s Militia, plainclothes police, whether you’re at the Potala Palace, the Jokhang or the train station, how it feels like driving through an era of war!”
It is not just Chinese and Tibetans who are suffering from the hyper-militarisation of the Tibetan Plateau. An extension of the Qinghai-Lhasa railway up to Shigatse, central Tibet’s second city, has been completed, and is expected to begin running in September 2014. China’s state-owned mining enterprises are looking to reap huge benefits from this increased connectivity, and as Gabriel Lafitte discusses in his recent work Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, it is not copper, chromites and borax that has the Chinese government so excited, but gold – a sad fulfilment of Herodotus’ prophecy of gold-digging ants.
If Windhorse is important, it is not as a literary masterpiece, nor as a chronicle of the uncertainties and negotiations of exile – for this, we can only turn to the Tibetans who are writing much poetry, and some fiction, in English. It is in focusing unashamedly on the military aspects of the Tibetan struggle against the communist occupation, and in challenging the staple narrative in Southasia and abroad about powerless yet high-minded Tibetans that the book is important. The Central Tibetan Administration recently reaffirmed its commitment to the Middle Way, although it is clear that deep concerns in the exile community concerning its political utility will not disappear soon.
Meanwhile, two forthcoming publications promise to shed more light on the military struggle in Tibet. One is an English translation of the biography of Lhamo Tsering, a leader of the Tibetan fighters and an early contact for the CIA in organising further Tibetan resistance. The other, My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone, an autobiography by Naktsang Nulo, who witnessed the 1958 uprising against the PLA in Amdo (about which little has been written so far), was a best-seller before it was banned in China in 2010. An English translation is set to appear in November 2014, and Pankaj Mishra has already assured us it is worth reading. These publications will, hopefully, provide more insight into what inspired those in Tibet to fight and resist the communist ‘liberation’. Their publication may also feature in the drawing of battle lines in the likely tussle that will emerge in the exile community when the search for the present Dalai Lama’s next incarnation begins. For those of the same ilk as Gompo Tashi, Aten and the characters of Windhorse, more militant action may not be so completely off the table as it currently is.
~Ross Adkin is a freelance writer for Reuters currently based in Kathmandu.