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Review of White Crane Lend me your Wings by Tsewang Pemba

Tsewang Pemba’s posthumous novel set in Kham, Tibet’s ‘wild east’, tells of an isolated nation first confronted by the modern world in the form of communist China

books Updated: Mar 10, 2017 23:56 IST
Thubten Samphel
Tswang Pemba
Khampa horseman at the Yushu Horse Racing Festival in Qinghai, in Eastern Tibet.(LightRocket via Getty Images)

Tswang Pemba’s White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings: A Tibetan Tale of Love and War comes as a gift from the past. The late doctor, considered the founding father of Tibetan literature in English, had previously authored two books: his autobiography, Young Days in Tibet (1957), and Idols on the Path (1966), the first Tibetan novel in English.

His posthumous offering, White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings, is fiction on an epic scale and gives readers a bird’s eye view of Tibet’s tumultuous history, it’s deep spirituality, and acts as a geography lesson on Tibet serving as the Water Tower of Asia. In this novel, Tsewang Pemba has evoked the tribal milieu of Kham, Tibet’s ‘wild east’ with its own sense of family and tribal honour where revenge and banditry were a way of life. Above all, White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings tells the fate of Tibet, long isolated and friendless, when it was confronted by the modern world in the form of communist China.

Tibet’s response to this challenge was armed resistance which was scattered, uncoordinated and equipped with antiquated weapons. Sometimes it took the form of “spiritual resistance,” a form of civil disobedience, of monks and monasteries peacefully ignoring the increasing and insistent demands of the People’s Liberation Army at great peril to themselves and their monasteries.

In the 1920s, two American missionaries, set up a Lutheran church in Nyakyil, the Middle Nyarong in Kham in eastern Tibet. They stepped in just before the impending face-off between Tibet and resurgent China. They had sailed from San Francisco to spread the gospel on the Roof of the World. At the time, China, through which the couple entered Tibet, was a volatile cocktail of warlordism, a weak nationalist government straining to unite the country, civil war between the nationalist and communist Chinese, the Japanese invasion, World War II and civil war again.

In Shanghai, the couple was encouraged by Reverend Frank Parkinson of the Spirit of Bethlemen Lutheran Mission to the Far East to set up a mission in Kham. “You see, it’s like this… as I see it. Tibet is the most religious country in the world. It dominates the spiritual world of Central Asia. A victory for us in Tibet would be Joshua bringing down Jericho. All Central Asia would go Christian. All Buddhist lands and hearts would be the Lord’s,” he said.

Tsewang Pemba

Reverend Parkinson hoped the Spirit of Bethlemen, which he mischievously abbreviates in the book to SOB, would give John Martin Stevens and his wife Mary the courage to accomplish this enormous undertaking high on the Tibetan Plateau. The reverend made the couple’s missionary work in Tibet sound like an adventure, heightening their sense of anticipation and excitement in spreading Christianity in remote, forbidden Tibet. Parkinson considered pastor John Martin Stevens and Mary Stevens and their mission station in Nyarong in Kham “the thin edge of the wedge that would prise open Tibet to the Lord.”

The couple discovered Kham in the same state of turmoil as nationalist China but on a lesser scale. The Tibetans were blissfully oblivious of their coming fate at the hands of the communist Chinese. Instead, they were ferociously busy with family and tribal feuds and banditry. In painting a picture of a self-absorbed Tibet unaware of the forces intent on transforming it to what each considered modern and civilised, Tsewang Pemba paints a clear picture of Tibet being easy prey for the opposed forces of Christianity and communism. That Tibet fell so easily to communism is the tragedy at the heart of this gripping story, which Pemba tells with relish and a true storyteller’s skill.

Tsewang Pemba’s admiration for Kham and the Khampas is abundantly clear. Tutoring the Stevens on Tibet’s history, culture, religion and racial composition, Reverend Parkinson expansively holds forth: “Here in the Tibetan highlands, called Kham… there live the finest of all tribes in the world…the Khampas. I know the Khampas well ─ perhaps too well ─ and I’ve spent many years with them. Even the British, who are not given to superlatives like us, have described them as ‘men and women of magnificent physique, immense courage and great honour.’ Let me assure you, the Khampas are everything the British say. Recently, Charles Bell, a British Political Officer in the Indian Himalayas, had this to say: ‘And as regards physical strength and hardihood, there are few, if any, finer races in the world than some of the tribes in Eastern Tibet.’”

The reader suspects the author harboured the fond wish that if only the Khampas had abandoned their internecine tribal wars, stopped regarding the Lhasa government with disdain, and had united as one pan-Tibet force, they could have successfully warded off communist China. This is reinforced by the repeated boasts of some Khampa characters in the story that, in hand-to-hand combat, “One Khampa is equal to ten Chinese.”

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Tsewang Pemba, who was a reputed medical doctor operating out of Thimphu and Darjeeling, has also used his medical expertise to bring alive the story. He makes the missionary couple bring the benefits of Western medical knowledge to Nyarong. In gratitude, one of the most powerful chieftains of Nyarong allowed them to set up a church, only to have it set ablaze by a rival tribe opposed to the spread of an alien god amongst Tibetans.

In the blurb, Tsering Shakya, historian and professor at the University of British Columbia and author of The Dragon in the Land of Snow:A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, sheds some light on the title. “White Crane, Lend Me Your Wing, a poem by the Sixth Dalai Lama in which he consoles his followers banished by the Manchu in 1720, speaks through the title of Dr TY Pemba’s novel as a wistful plea for the return of the exiled Tibetans to their cherished homeland.”

Tsewang Pemba has peopled his mind’s Nyarong with a crowd of characters, which sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to follow the story. The pace of the narrative, which ends around the early 1950s, also slackens. But these are small faults in a novel that has managed to recreate the world of old Tibet. Perhaps this is Tsewang Pemba’s way of saying that Tibet’s story is still un-finished.

Finally, this treasure was discovered by Shelly Bhoil, a PhD scholar, whose thesis is on Tibetan nationalism in exile through the evolution of Tibetan English fiction. “I live in Brazil but was fortunately in India when the late Dr Pemba’s daughter Lhamo Pemba was travelling to Darjeeling from the US. When she handed me her father’s cherished treasure, the first thing that came to mind was the terma textual tradition of Tibet. I felt I had found an intellectual treasure,” she said. “At an emotional level, because of the trust which Lhamo Pemba invested in me, I felt a sense of responsibility to bring his works to the light of day, and I am glad I could do just that.”

Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute and author of Falling Through the Roof