By Vijay Kranti
(Part of the ‘My journey through the Tibetan mindscape’ series)
Unlike enlightened souls like Richard Gere who was bitten by the Tibet bug at a mature age, my fascination for Tibet started as a little kid back in 1950s when my school text book taught me about India’s neighbors. It included an independent chapter on Tibet too as our neighboring ‘nation’. As a child we were amused to learn that Tibetan can identify the incarnate baby after the death of their king, the Dalai Lama, and install the child as their next king. Also that people greet each other by sticking out their tongue. Over 60 years later, my photographic memory can still recall the black and white sketch of a Tibetan man, wearing a long hat and holding his personal prayer wheel in his hand.
At that tender age, where else I could have wished to go – hoping that I were in Tibet and they would realize that I was the real child to be made the king. Those were the days when we had yet to learn the virtues of realpolitik. Our school textbooks could still speak truth and refer to Tibet as a separate country, other than China. But on growing up I learnt that realpolitik could easily make nations turn truths upside down. Not too many years after China occupied and used Tibet’s land to attack and humiliate my country in 1962 and my country’s Parliamentarians pledged ‘unanimously’ to take back every inch of our lost land from China, I realized that the same Parliament’s practices and rules could muzzle and bar its own members even from raising a question on China’s presence in Tibet.
My school book also told me that the Tibetans drink milk of Yak which is a larger and tougher version of our buffalo and that it is also used as a transport animal like a horse. It was a funny idea to imagine a mix of a horse and buffalo which also delivers milk. It was nearly 15 years later that I I realized that Yak is a male animal and you can’t take out milk from a male buffalo or a horse. It was actually Zo, the She Yak which was more or less like our black cows that delivered milk. The Tibet chapter in our text book kept tingling us all along the year as we kids would greet each other by sticking out our tongue. And some of us would even use this greeting for some tough teachers and the bully boys — of course only in their absence.
These childhood memories have come alive this late evening when my tourist bus is entering Lhasa, the capital of same Tibet that has been growing with me in my memories. My hopes about our bus getting stuck in a herd of yaks in a Lhasa street had already dashed in cities like Shigatse, Dhingri and Lhatse on our way from Dram on the Nepal-Tibet border during past three days. More than half of the Tibetan people I had met around my tourist bus during our stoppages were Tibetan beggars. The only Yaks I could watch from my bus window were either grazing on hill slopes at a distance or were accompanying scores of labour groups in the distance who were perhaps laying underground optical fiber up to the Nepal border from Lhasa or Shigatse.
As my bus speeds along an eight-lane city boulevard, I am suddenly overwhelmed by the massive high-rise buildings and jumbo neon signs along the road. It looks like a parade of shopping malls exploding with lights – a scene that would put the best of Gurgaon or Bangalore malls in India to shame. Soon I stop counting endless number of Pajeros, BMWs and other hot international brands on the road. Hoping to see herds of yaks roaming the streets of Lhasa, I am wondering what made the yaks to reincarnate into such wonderful wheeled gizmos. Glittery stores with all kinds of consumer goods and well-dressed customers dominated the road on both sides until our bus dropped us at our hotel.
Dumb struck by this sudden visual shock I entered into the comfortable room of my tourist guest house in the old part of Lhasa, I am unable to solve my latest puzzle – which Tibet is the real one? The one I saw through my bus window or the one that I’ve been living with or hearing about all the years? Exasperated and unable to solve this innocent riddle, I take to my well-tested device of leaving the answer to tomorrow and go to sleep.
(Views expressed are his own)
The author is a senior Indian journalist, photographer and a keen Tibet watcher for over four decades. During the first decade of 2000’s he visited Tibet many times on his self assigned learning and photo-expeditions.