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Posted at: May 14, 2017, 2:23 AM; last updated: May 14, 2017, 2:23 AM (IST)BOOK REVIEW: WHITE CRANE, LEND ME YOUR WINGS BY TSEWANG YISHEY PEMBA.

History couched in fiction

Rajdeep Bains


“White crane! 

Lend me your wings 

I will not fly far 

From Lithang, I shall return”

So wrote Tsangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama of Tibet, when he was being forcibly taken away to China by the Manchu in 1720— away from his people and the Potala palace. And so wrote Dr Tsewang Yishey Pemba in his posthumously published novel that describes his yearning for the Tibet taken away by communist China.

Dr Pemba has the distinction of being the first Tibetan to become a surgeon in Western medical science. However, literature and arts is what he dedicated a great portion of his life to, becoming in the process the author of the first Tibetan-English novel, Idols on the Path. 

While we expect a novel on Tibet to be about Buddhism or meditation, with the occasional memoir of early Tibet thrown into the mix, White Crane, Lend me your Wings is a clear break from that expectation. It is historical fiction, but with a scale so large that it sweeps the entire canvas of history, culture, love, religion, and language.

There were two invasions of Tibet — the first by missionaries from ‘Am-rika’ who try to convert the Tibetans to give up their religion in favour of Christianity; and the second by Chinese forces. The novel tells us how the first failed spectacularly as the battle-hardened khampas utterly rejected the ‘alien gods’; the second, as they say, is history, ending with the Tibetan exodus from their homeland despite a brave though ill-planned resistance. In the face of an enemy as formidable as the Chinese army it stood little chance. The novel is in some ways a lamentation that the internal rivalries and feuds did not allow Tibetans to unite against the common enemy.

While he regrets the inter-tribal wars, Dr Pemba’s admiration for Kham and the Khampas could not be clearer. In the novel, Reverend Parkinson, head of the Spirit of Bethlehem Lutheran Mission to the Far East describes them as, “…the finest of all tribes in the world… men and women of magnificent physique, immense courage and great honour.” Stevens and his wife Mary set up a mission in Nyarong valley, one of the most beautiful areas of Kham. The novel narrates the parallel stories of their lives, and of Tibet, describing how they not only adopt Tibet but are absorbed by it, much as the Chinese forces absorb the valley and all that the Tibetans hold dear.

The story is richly detailed, bringing to life the people of that era and showcasing the author’s deep knowledge of Tibetan culture, religion and dialects. Vivid descriptions of the awe-inspiring scenery Tibet is famous for, of the characters (minor and major), of the culture and religious thought, the swagger and gallantry of the Khampa warriors (as well as the Chinese), all make this novel more than a work of fiction. It becomes a repository of memories of a time and a people that are, sadly, long gone.

The novel is a coming of age story, over 400 pages of beautiful descriptions and delightful historical anecdotes that will appeal not just to history buffs but also to those trying to make sense of the displacement of Tibetans and the still unresolved conflict over its territory. The bonus is that the language is so beautiful and the descriptions so achingly lovely that one wants to read it just for the pleasure one derives from these. It is a book that deserves to be read. 


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