Barbara Demick, a former head of the Los Angles Times bureau in China for seven years, is a remarkable journalist. She has reported from forbidding places and written insightful books on them. Her book on North Korea ( Nothing to Envy ) is now followed up with another on Tibet, centred on the difficult-to-reach small town of Ngaba, entry to which is restricted by the Chinese authorities. It is located on the Tibetan plateau and close to the better-known city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.
Ngaba interested Demick because it was remote and nondescript and had, more than any other place in Tibet, long resisted Chinese control starting with the arrival of Mao’s famished soldiers in the famous Long March. They consumed everything comestible in sight — in addition to their own leather belts and rifle straps, edible holy figurines in Tibetan monasteries as well — hence the title of the book Eat the Buddha – Life and Death in a Tibetan Town .
A moving account
The Chinese under Mao tightened their control over Tibet from the early 1950s. They were ideological and racially-driven and more often constituted a harsh occupying force rather than the liberating one they purported to be. Monasteries were ransacked and destroyed, valuable records burnt and monks and nuns humiliated and often killed. Demick details these movingly and in considerable detail. As in the rest of Tibet, Demick informs us, resistance to such control has been more often passive and suicidal than offensively violent and long centred in and around Ngaba, where a third of all the self-immolations (152 in all) by Buddhist monks in Tibet occurred.
The stronghold of religion that has endured in Tibet is well brought out by Demick in this book as also the affection and reverence with which the Dalai Lama is held by most Tibetans within and outside China. Not to do things by halves, she has covered the story from the Indian side as well, spending time in Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives with thousands of Tibetans who have fled their homeland.
Demick melds dry statistics with brilliant personal accounts of how epochal events affected the lives of Tibetans. These included members of the Ngama aristocracy as well as ordinary people finding ways of survival in extremely challenging times, some as hustlers and traders and others as collaborators with the Chinese in and outside Tibet.
One of those whose life Demick chronicles in some detail is that of the former Ngama princess Gonpo who survived the deaths of her parents, internment and exile only to find contentment, honour and happiness in an improbable marriage to a Chinese, Xiao Tu, and wonderful life in Nanjing.
Story of suffering
Gonpo’s story has a sad but not terrible ending. Determined to go on a pilgrimage to meet the Dalai Lama, she used influence to get a passport to proceed to India with one of her daughters only to be marooned there, after her benefactor, the Panchen Lama, suddenly died in China, making her return to Nanjing and the rest of her family impossible. Few Indians appreciate the humongous suffering inflicted on China by its former leaders. Demick covers the terrible impact of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, not just on the Tibetans but on all Chinese. Eat The Buddha also throws some cold water on a commonly accepted myth that Tibetans are not adjusting to Chinese rule. They are, albeit grudgingly.
A whole generation of Tibetans has grown up without knowing at first hand the suffering of their parents and grandparents at the hands of the Chinese in the past. Demick does not downplay this or the fact that the Tibetans owe their sad fate in part to the refusal of their leaders to reform and change their ways.
However, there is a lot of muscle memory left in Tibetans. On this, Demick echoes what Edgar Snow stated in his book Red China Today , published nearly 60 years ago: ‘None of that meant that Tibetans were not anti-Chinese and would not desire independence…the land, the mountains, the rivers and the people were still there — a proud people, rugged as their peaks, and likely to prove as obdurate.”
Is Demick’s book of any importance to us? As we find ourselves in the middle of another standoff with China, there is so little the public in our country knows about our giant neighbour beyond what our government agencies put out. Much of this information is limited to making immediate sense of China in strategic and diplomatic terms but lacks in historical understandings.
Unable to get a locally-generated multi-dimensional understanding of China and the historical and cultural compulsions driving its policies and programmes there is always a silly sense of bewilderment and sense of betrayal amongst us. This is unlike the West which has been constantly striving to make sense of that country as that of others through its missionaries, businessmen, writers, journalists and academics.
Together these constitute a wealth of historical understanding of China in all its dimensions while establishing an intimate connect between the Chinese and the West, something we failed to achieve, despite over two millenniums of interactions with that country.
Constituting the country’s western periphery abutting Central Asia, Tibet is of immense strategic significance to China. In area, it is enormous — nearly as large as India — and sparsely populated as our own Ladakh is. It is quite possible that places that have a thriving Tibetan culture, outside China and under Indian control, present a huge challenge to China as it seeks to erase Tibetan identity at home.
If only to make better sense of all this, Demick’s book is required reading especially for our policymakers.
MEET THE AUTHOR: Barbara Demick is the author Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood. Her books have been translated into more than 25 languages. Demick is a contributor to The New Yorker.
The reviewer is a former visiting Fellow at NIAS, CEU-Budapest aswell as CCS-IISc-Bangalore