The globe will turn, and chase other shadows, the world will turn taciturn, and bury your tale in one of the burrows, but if your hearts continue to burn, then, well, who knows?”
Late Dr Pemba’s novel, completed in 2011, but published now, is evocative of, and a representation of cultural memory of the vast Tibetan diaspora. The verse above is inspired from a moment in the novel, when childhood friends Tenga and Paul-o are about to part, in the face of Chinese insurrection in the Tibetan territory of Nyarong, after World War II. Paul-o must leave for India with several others, to keep alive the dream of Tibetan freedom in the hearts of the thousands who had to flee their motherland. Paul-o is a symbol of humanity caught in a crossfire of civilisational conflict and stereotypes. Born of American parents, who had come to proselytize in Tibet, in the 1920s, he has grown up as a Khampa and is forever anxious to prove his acculturated identity which conflicts with his parental identity. During their teenage years, Tenga and Paul-o form an army of boys.
The army also has two girls, including Khadro, on whom both the boys have a crush. Tenga plots to gang-rape Khadro, and Paul-o helps her escape. Paul-o is then accused of being a coward, and he cuts off his middle finger to prove his bravery. Thereon, he takes charge, and asks everyone to sacrifice their middle finger to prove their mettle. This is where Pemba’s novel is complexly postcolonial, like Chinua Achebe’s master-work Things Fall Apart, in delineating how tragedy is brought upon a civilisation not just by external forces, but by internal regression of patriarchy also.
The novel works through a complex tapestry of symbols, and in that it is reminiscent of the old modernist novel. Interestingly, the period the novel is set in, between post-WWI and post-WWII. It is also the period of rise of modernism. The novel tries to understand events through characters, behaviour through psyche, collective through individuals, and so on. During the Chinese invasion of Nyarong, the invaders leave the American missionaries’ mansion untouched, with American flag fluttering atop it still, to display it as a symbol of ‘imperialism’ to the communist authorities. Imperialism destroyed makes for the perfect romantic narrative of the new Communist discourse in China in the 1940s.
Ironically, the mission’s mansion was earlier gutted down by the local Rithangtsan clan during a clash between clans. And the people were punished in turn by the Chinese authorities. Tashi, a Rithangstan, had escaped the punishment and has now returned as a communist general. Whether he has come for personal vengeance against Dragotsang people, or as a political ideologue of the new wave of communism is obfuscated to show how politics of people cannot be singularly defined, how a great deal of their experiences and psychological make-up goes into its making. On the other hand, Paul-o, who had seen his house burnt, and had sacrificed his finger, is a thoroughbred Khampa now, and nothing can make him shake off his identity. In India, the American diplomat Seymour welcomes him and gives him American outfits, but he refuses to let go of his Tibetan symbols.
During the Chinese invasion, Pemba shows multiple pictures. One of them is a general who gets into a debate with a monk about Dialectical Materialism, trying to assert that Marxist philosophy can explain everything. In the end he is overwhelmed, like someone at a peak who just saw multiple taller peaks. In another picture, a general overruns a monastery and asks the Rinpoche to perform miracles, to feed his monks, which he fails to. Symbolism is the hallmark of this novel, which is the symbol of a cultural memory glowing in a million hearts.
(Amit Ranjan is a poet and writer, and currently teaches literature at Zakir Husain Delhi College)