What happens when exiled, bereaved, your family killed, your home purloined, your life is brought to a premature conclusion?
Jamyan Norbu’s account of the life of Aten, a native of Tibet displaced by the Chinese in the early sixties, does not provide us with the answer to that question, because it is at exactly that point that the book ends. Aten finally crosses the Himalayas, arriving in Dharamsala in India, his life as he knew it now no more than a memory. It is these memories that the book vividly conveys. Life on the high Tibetan plain. The day to day domestic problems. The importance of religion and pilgrimage. As well as the presence of the Chinese, whose occupation is cruel yet benign until Mao finally turns to the task of subjugating the ancient culture, beginning a process of destruction which continues to this day.
The book brings to mind Pinter’s Mountain Language. The Chinese are even attempting to destroy the words the Tibetans employ. At first Aten tries to work with the Chinese, his journey mirroring that of the Dalai Lama, spending a year in China being trained to become a figure they will use to govern the country. Here are fascinating insights into the way in which China’s seemingly sudden emergence as an economic superpower is actually part of a process and a way of thinking that has been in development for far longer than anyone realised. The subjugation of Tibet and other indigenous peoples within and on the edges of its borders marked the start of a process which continues apace. Aten notes the way in which the occupation became more and more savage, until it reaches the point where he has no option but to join the catastrophic resistance campaign, with devastating personal results.
This is a book written in memory about a lost world. The miracle is that the narrator, as conveyed by the author, seems to have retained through his affection for what he has lost, his sense of humour and humanity. Where one might expect fierce anger, the reader encounters equanimity. For anyone with an interest in the fate of Tibet, or displaced peoples anywhere in the world, this book represents a compelling read.