When Vikram Seth traveled through China almost twenty five years ago, the country was much less fashionable in popular parlance than it is today. Sinkiang and Tibet are likely to be far more accessible to the tourist today, possibly even to the hitch hiker, which is what was Seth’s choice incarnate – an interesting albeit woeful one, but without which the travelogue would likely have remained unattractive or half done.
Seth was a Stanford exchange student in Nanjing University when he wrote this book (1983) and the origins of his unconventional journey back to his home in Delhi for the summer vacation was a rather impromptu one – when he, tired of the limiting insights through a conducted tour, broke away from the school party to undertake this extraordinary detour on his own.
It is an engrossing read, not merely to discover the ethereal beauty of the harsh high desert landscapes of Western China and Tibet, but also for the human interactions – his bonhomie with Sui, the erratic but good natured truck driver with whom he spends the longest part of his trip, his travails on the way, the family he befriends in Tibet and their unenviable legacy in the gruesomeness of the Chinese occupation, and so on. It is probably well known that Seth, a polyglot, was quick to pick up Chinese during his stay in China (he has published a translation of Chinese poets for that matter) . This helped him immensely on the way, to talk to the people in remote places with little knowledge of the outside world, much less English.
He is observant of the hospitable nature of the Chinese people, despite the secrecy of its Government:
“Time and again, with no thought other than kindness, people have helped me along in this journey. And this experience is merely a continuation of what I have felt throughout my travels in China: a remarkable warmth to the outsider from a people into whom a suspicion of foreigners has so long been instilled.”
It is interesting to note that Seth compares the communist autocracy of China and India’s fledging democracy, a theme at the heart of Aravind Adiga’s successful novel The White Tiger. This was when Adiga was nine years old. Yet the similarity of their observations, although via quite different vehicles, is striking, and only helps crystallize the viability of such comparisons.
“I think about what the two countries have done for their people in the course of the last thirty years. One overwhelming fact is that the Chinese have a better system of social care and of distribution than we do. Their aged do not starve. Their children are basically healthy. By and large, the people are well clothed, very occasionally in rags. Most children in the eastern provinces go to school for at least five years; this is in practice, not just(as in India) on paper. Tibet will take a long time to achieve the standard of living of other parts of China; however, in this comparatively prosperous part of Tibet I have not, for instance, seen signs of malnutrition.
“I am often asked about the relative success of our two large overpopulated countries in satisfying the most basic needs of their people. What is sometimes forgotten when making this comparison is that, except for the greater mineral wealth of China (a result of its far greater land area), all the a priori advantages lie on India’s side. India’s needs are fewer, and its agricultural production possibilities are greater. First, less clothing and heating are required for the average Indian than the average Chinese: everyone in the north of China needs both a heavy overcoat and heating fuel in winter. Secondly, India has more arable land per capita, more sunshine for double and triple cropping, and a better potential for irrigation. Yet despite all this, the average Chinese is better clothed, better fed and better sheltered that the average Indian.”
Yet Seth is not unsympathetic to India’s achievements, its democracy.
“But the Indian achievement of the last thirty years has been in a different, more nebulous, and in a sense more difficult direction. The country has not fragmented: a whole generation of Indians has grown up accepting that an independent and united India is the normal state of affairs. In the first few years of a nation, that is already a great deal: one cannot expect patriotism.”
I wonder what Seth’s views would be today, with all the separatist movements in Kashmir and the North East. But while critical of censorship and infringement on personal freedoms following Chinese dictatorship, Seth lauds, and rightly so, the democratic framework in India, however fragile. We do hope to see it pay off in the future, though this appears a distant prospect till this day.
Finally, he concludes, rather abstemiously:
“I now see that China’s achievements are solid but have serious drawbacks; and that is about all that that can be said about India’s, too.”
Quite diplomatic. But undeniably true.
I seem to have gone off in a tangent while writing about a travelogue. But these were too relevant and inescapable in my perspective to ignore. Coming back to the travel aspect, Heaven Lake, from which the book derives its title, is actually a pristine lake in the North western province of Sinkiang. It is from here that Seth, deserting his school troop, retraces his path all the way back to Nanjing and then to Beijing in eastern China in order to obtain his passport, money, and a Nepalese Visa (which he didn’t eventually need, being an Indian citizen), thus completing a circuitous loop all the way back to Liuyuan, from where he continues further south to Lasha, then Kathmandu and home to Delhi.
I have an interest in Tibet, and have written earlier about an older, marginal turn of the twentieth century book by an European traveler (Amaury de Riencourt), who visits Lasha, virtually unknown then to Westerners, via Sikkim. Since then, Tibet has been far more exposed to the rest of the world. While the political aspect is almost unnoticeable in Seth’s book, it is delightful to read about Lasha once again, the city and its grand monasteries, their resilience and decay. In Potala, the seat of Tibetan Buddhism and once the residence of the Dalai Lama, Seth is overwhelmed by the inspiring experience of the mystical rituals.
One thing that distinguishes Seth’s book from the run-of-the-mill travelogue is the occasional doggerel. Besides their literary value, they are filled with quaint observations which are simply charming. Here’s a bit from a longer piece, which he had written while in the truck after a particularly difficult stretch:
Here we three, cooped, alone,
Tibetan, Indian, Han,
Against a common dawn
Catch what poor sleep we can,
And sleeping drag the same
Sparse air into our lungs,
And dreaming each of home
Sleeptalk in different tongues.
There’s one particular piece, of prose however, which struck a chord in me, perhaps due to the fact that I too, Mystic Wanderer, have been drifting away from my homeland, in this course of life. Seth is in Nanjing, before setting out for Beijing, and enjoys a valedictory meal with a friend, which includes some California wine. This makes him nostalgic, for California, and he observes:
“…I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.”