How do you write a book about Tibet that doesn't ruffle official feathers and yet remains true to your identity? TENZING SONAM on Alai's `much acclaimed' debut novel.
IN 2000, Alai, the Tibetan author of Red Poppies, won China's most prestigious literary award the Mao Dun Prize. Coincidentally, in India, the Crossword Book Prize for the same year was won by Tibetan born Jamyang Norbu (and brought up in exile) for his novel, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes. After more than four decades of living either under occupation, or in exile, it seemed Tibetans were finally beginning to find their voice, albeit in languages alien to them.
As a Tibetan exile myself, I approached Alai's novel with an equal mixture of expectation and trepidation. This, after all, was the first novel written by a Tibetan from inside Tibet, one that had captured the imagination of the Chinese public and was now being feted in the West. Despite the problems the book had initially faced in finding a publisher in China purportedly for its political overtones it had finally received official sanction. Clearly, a trenchant attack on Chinese policies in Tibet was not on the cards and I could understand Alai's dilemma; as a Tibetan living in China, how do you write a book about Tibet that doesn't ruffle official feathers and yet remains true to your own identity?
Red Poppies is set in the dying days of the chieftains who had ruled the borderlands of Eastern Tibet for centuries before they were swept away by the People's Liberation Army in 1949. Ethnically and culturally Tibetan, these areas had existed largely independently of either Tibetan or Chinese overlordship. The story unfolds through the eyes of the nameless, idiot second son of Chieftain Maichi and charts the rise and fall of his family as the patriarch and his two sons manipulate and fight their way into becoming the most powerful and wealthy of the chieftains before, predictably, losing everything during the Communists invasion.
The eponymous poppies and their deadly harvest of opium set the Maichi clan on their road to wealth and power, although the real instigator of the family's fortunes turns out to be our idiot narrator, who, far from being idiotic, ultimately outwits everyone around him. But despite his many exploits, people continue to treat him like an idiot and he takes great pains to periodically remind us of his intellectually challenged status: "I was hopeless. A hopeless idiot."
The idiot narrator is simply a literary device and not a very convincing one at that. He is not helped by an ungainly translation that often sounds stilted and bizarrely out of context. Monks wear "purple cassocks"; the idiot's brother is First Young Master and the local high lama, Living Buddha Jeeka, neither of which are Tibetan forms of address; "squealing critters" scurry about and characters shout, "Giddap!" or else have "yakked away".
The world of the chieftains that Alai describes is a far cry from the meditative and peace-loving Shangri La of Western imagination. On the contrary, it is a hellishly brutal place where despotic cruelty, casual violence, ready sex and the relentless pursuit of blood feuds are the order of the day. Heads are lopped off (there is no evidence that this Chinese custom was ever carried out in Tibetan areas), tongues cut out and ears and hands chopped off at the slightest excuse (mutilations such as these were rare in the early 20th Century). Buddhism, rather than being an ameliorating influence, is a superstitious hodgepodge of magic, incantations and meaningless rituals, its lamas firmly under the control of the chieftain and routinely humiliated by him. This is a depiction of Old Tibet that could have rolled straight off the presses of the Communist Party's propaganda machine, which, to this day, happily accuses the Dalai Lama and his followers of rape, murder and child cannibalism.
Of course, we are no longer so naïve as to believe that Old Tibet was a Buddhist paradise. We know it was feudal, backward and deeply conservative, in pressing need of reforms. But Alai's picture of pre-Communist life is so relentlessly barbaric, so over-the-top, that it loses all sense of reality and becomes a grotesque caricature. Is Alai simply a victim of his Chinese upbringing, faithfully spewing out the party line, unable to distinguish the truth from lies or is there some deeper, more subtle, agenda?
There are some intimations that this exaggeration is deliberate. Alai's hatred seems directed at the chieftains, yet he also expresses a sense of admiration for the code of honour, the "rules" that they lived by. It is precisely because the chieftains have forsaken these rules in favour of material gain that they have become corrupt and decadent.
When Chieftain Maichi defeats his rival with the help of a Chinese emissary, the captured messenger of his enemy says to him: "You've already tainted your reputation by seeking help from the Han Chinese. You have violated the rules, so how can you expect to preserve your name?" But the transgression of the chieftains goes further; they have forgotten their hereditary links with Tibet (a place that Alai takes pains to differentiate from the border fiefdoms) and, instead, switched their allegiance to the east, to China, the source of their titles and material wealth, preferring "the worldly empire of the east, not the land of western deities". And it is this choice that proves to be their undoing, for eventually, only negative and corrupting things come from that direction; guns, opium, prostitution, syphilis and finally, destruction, in the form of the Communists.
The ambiguity of Alai's attitudes towards his native land can be heard, echoed in the idiot's final thoughts before life ebbs away from him, "Dear God, if our souls can really be reincarnated, please send me back to this place in my next life. I love this beautiful place."
But even if this were the case, it is too late to save the book, for long before the ponderous narrative lurches to its predestined conclusion, we no longer care about what happens to the idiot or to the Maichi clan or to the two-dimensional cartoon world of the chieftains.
Red Poppies: An Epic Saga of Old Tibet, Alai, Penguin, Rs. 295.
Tenzing Sonam is a writer and filmmaker.
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