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French Toast for Tibet

Patrick French's incredible knowledge of Tibet has make this personal history a must read for all Tibetophiles.

india Updated: Apr 08, 2003 11:47 IST

Tibet, Tibet
Patrick French

Harper Collins
2003
Travelogue
Pages: 333
Price: Rs 395
Hardcover

Patrick French and William Dalrymple have many things in common. Both are top-ranked young Brit writers with a fascination with things Eastern. Dalrymple is an unabashed Indophile and it is no wonder that he has settled down in Delhi as he soaks up the success of The White Mughals, while French is half the time in India anyway. Just a coincidence that both launched their books within a couple of months of each other.

French is more Tibetophile than Indophile, though he has written also on Partition in Liberty and Death. French get a bit emotional about Tibet and his Tibetan friends. His voice choked when he read out the passages referring to the suicide of a Tibetan friend from his latest book Tibet, Tibet: Personal history of a lost land.

French’s Tibet is not just a fashion statement as many books on Tibet and the Dalai Lama turn out to be. This travelogue is wonderfully blended with Tibet and Chinese history and needless to say is also a tract against Maoism, Chinese expansionism, and all the rest of it.

Points taken. But the only problem for those who read the book now is an eerie parallel that can be drawn with the American expansionist plans in the Gulf. In retrospect, it may be asked what did China do in Tibet that modern imperial powers did not do or have plans to do?

French at the same time is not too adulatory of the Dalai. Off and on he suggests that there is a naiveté in the Dalai Lama that has not helped his cause. This has prevented an early rapprochement with China, after the Lama refused to see opportunity in two conciliatory offering the Chinese came up with some years back the latest in 1989. Even the administration of the government is done in a haphazard manner, with few clued in to what is happening. The government in exile is not even sure why they have officially claimed for Tibetans much more land that originally governed by Lhasa. During Dalai Lama’s time in office in Tibet between 1950 and 1959, “the Tibetan government operated with the same mixture of cupidity and incompetence as it had in the 1930s and forties. “

But these are just quibbles considering the strides the Free Tibet movement has gathered in the recent past after remaining hidden for 30 years or so, pushed to a corner in Dharamsala. Now to wear a Free Tibet T-shirt and waving black flags at visiting Chinese dignitaries in the glossy capitals of the world is quite the thing to do. The Dalai Lama is now more conciliatory towards China but there is no hope as yet of any breakthrough in the relationship between the exiled and the Chinese government.

French’s travel through Tibet is quite gripping, especially as there is the lurking fear of being picked up and thrown into some primordial dungeon. Through daredevilry, cunning and that drive to attain the impossible, French manages to travel though the length and breadth of occupied Tibet without actually get hauled up by the Chinese spooks, whom we are told are all over the place. Maybe there are no spooks at all now, since China seems confident that Tibetans will no longer be able to put together any uprising.

The journeys in crowded buses like when he is descending from “Lithang to a place where the air was thick and misty, the earth a deep rich red and the rivers a rushing ochre..”, is for the reader too a journey into unknown lands. French’s descriptive powers are as amazing as his polemic is. Tibet is a travel book to rival any.

French makes an attempt to bring out the dark chapters of Tibetan history by searching out the victims (he wouldn’t have had to search a lot considering the numbers) of Chinese cruelty and oppression and dutifully recording it for us. Of course we also join in condemning the Chinese for the havoc they caused in Tibet.

French encapsulates history admirably, and will help the reader understand the Chinese ethos and their attitude much better. Few writers today know Tibet better than French, his earlier biography on Francis Younghusband, the British commissioner in Tibet during the days of the Great Game, having laid the base for this superlative travelogue which is also roller-coaster ride through a period of history we tend to ignore.

First Published: Apr 04, 2003 14:25 IST