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COUNTRIES OF THE MIND

Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land By Patrick French, HarperCollins, Rs 395

There are at least two Tibets. One is a geographical entity, peopled by flesh-and-blood humans, with a bloody history that goes back several centuries. The other is an idea, which manifests itself in the popular Western imagination in the figure of the dalai lama. The two Tibets are continents apart.

Patrick French does the job of distinguishing between the two with a great deal of competence. And yet, he started off by joining the fashionable Tibet Support Group in London, which would take it upon itself to send letters to The Times, organize rallies, arrange for media coverage, so that the “export version” of Tibet could go “from being obscure to cult-fashionable to mainstream”.

When something takes hold of the collective imagination of an entire generation of people in the way the idea of Tibet has, the myths and misconceptions heavily outnumber the facts. French is faced with the unenviable task of busting a huge corpus of myths. The most significant among them is this: the history of Tibet began with the advent of Buddhism. On the contrary, as French shows, the coming of Buddhism around the late 7th century marked the end of Tibet’s days of martial glory. A dominant central Asian military power with effective control over the trade routes of the region was gradually reduced to a kingdom preoccupied with the “squabbling within the royal family and between the royals and the powerful monasteries.”

The past and the present run parallely in this book. French threads the history of the forbidden land with the account of his journeys in China and the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1999-2000. If the historical details unveil a military power that was Tibet, the present is a series of images and interviews which lay bare the truth behind the comment of Ngawang Namdrub, an intermediary between the Tibetan nomad community and the Chinese authorities, “Mao Zedong’s legacy was misery.”

Mao’s Great Leap Forward sent Tibet, and indeed large parts of rural China, back to the middle ages. The great famine of the late Fifties and the early Sixties put a few more nails in the coffin. From Peng Dehuai, former defence minister of China from a truly peasant background, to Nyima, the nun, to Wangdu and his father, Dawa Tsering, everyone was made to pay the price of dissent in a totalitarian regime. The dalai lama escaped to India in 1959 and formed the Tibetan government in exile which he runs to this day from Dharamsala.

The biggest test of objectivity for any writer on Tibet comes when he writes on the dalai lama. French would get about six here on a scale of ten. On the one hand, he calls Martin Scorcesse’s Kundun “a beautifully crafted piece of Dalaidolatry” and criticizes the dalai lama’s failure to seize the opportunity to enter into direct negotiations with the Chinese when Deng Xiaoping offered him a post in Beijing in 1989. On the other hand, he takes great umbrage at Rupert Murdoch’s description of the dalai lama as “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes” (“the dalai lama...would not know his Guccis from his Nikes, and his failing is that if anything he is insufficiently political.”); or at Larry King’s asking the lama what he thought about the human genome experiment (“the bodhisattva of compassion being forced by the exigencies of global politics and celebrity culture to compete for airtime with the passing flotsam of high-speed television.”)

The heroes of Tibet, Tibet are not its lamas, but the ordinary Tibetans like 49-year-old, shy Ngodup, who died in a halo of fire during a demonstration in New Delhi, shouting, “Po gyalo, po rangzen” (victory for Tibet, free Tibet).

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