Category Archives: travelogue

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

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.”

 

How eloquent!

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Incendiary Circumstances by Amitav Ghosh

Incendiary Circumstances is a collection of seventeen essays, written over two decades, on the many social and political crises besotting our world. Here, our world is mostly confined to South Asia, parts of South East Asia (Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia), and Middle East(Egypt, Kuwait), “Half-made worlds”, in the words of V.S. Naipaul, which Ghosh refers to in the preface. But “the incendiary circumstances of these essays are no longer exceptional anywhere in the world”, Ghosh illustrates through the short, ruminative piece on the WTC attack in New York, titled September 11, which, though seemingly banal, is quite effective and appropriate.

What sets these essays apart from being purely journalistic narratives is the touch of personal perspective that Ghosh adds, either by his close presence during the occurrences, or by contact with a victim he has personally known. Given his training as a social anthropologist and his profession as a fiction writer, some of the pieces read like stories almost, or certainly a mixture of memoir and travelogue

 

Terrorism, or repression as we have come to know in today’s world, is a recurring theme. Ghosh draws successfully from his rich personal experiences, though he is himself dubious about the fruitfulness of writing about such issues. In the preface he writes:

“…is it possible to write about situations of violence without allowing your work to become complicit with the subject? [Para] No doubt the reason that this question had a special urgency for me was because the “incendiary circumstances” of the title have been a part of the background of my everyday life since my childhood. … if there is anything instructive in the present turmoil of the world, it is surely that few ideas are as dangerous as the belief that all possible means are permissible in the service of a desirable end.”

 

Ghosh unambiguously heightens the intensity of an alarm, which to us, aware to a degree of the dire state of affairs, has been dulled to background noise in the frenzy of day to day living. The book, while serving as a chronicle of modern history in patches, also brings forth a sense of urgency in our awareness to these events and their significance in our lives today.

 

While many of the pieces spell a sense of doom, of a world at the edge of a cataclysm, there are diversions. “Tibetan Dinner” is his experience in a NYC restaurant where a Hollywood star (Richard Gere, I presume) is hosting a dinner for the cause of Tibet. During his meal, Ghosh recalls the Tibetan refugees in India, between looking up to the solitary monk being felicitated.

“When I next caught the monk’s eye, his smile seemed a little guilty: the hospitality of a poor nation must have seemed dispensable compared to the charity of a rich one. Or perhaps he was merely bewildered. It cannot be easy to celebrate the commodification of one’s own suffering.”

The essay titled “Four Corners”, continues on the theme of marginalized people in our modern world, this time for the American Indians.

“…The names of the dispossessed tribes of Americas hold a peculiar allure for the marketing executives of automobile companies. Pontiac, Cherokee – so many tribes are commemorated in forms of transport. It is not a mere matter of fashion that so many of the cars that flash past on the highway carry those names, breathing them into the air like the inscriptions on prayer wheels. This tradition of naming has a long provenance: did not Kit Carson himself, the scourge of the Navajo, name his favorite horse Apache?”

 

“The Imam and the Indian”, the last of the lot, is an encounter of with an imam (a Muslim cleric) during Ghosh’s stay in Egypt. While humorous, it poignantly reflects on the strange sense of irony in the interpretation of western progress in the rest of the world. The imam tries to belittle Ghosh in pointing out to the village crowd that Ghosh is from a place where they worship cows and burn their dead. The two get into a heated argument, where Ghosh says that they burn the dead in the West as well.

“The imam could see that he had stung me. He turned away and laughed. “He’s lying,” he said to the crowd. “They don’t burn their dead in the West. They’re not ignorant people. They’re advanced, they’re educated, they have science, they have guns and tanks and bombs.”

“We have them too!” I shouted back at him. I was as confused now as I was angry. “In my country we have all those things too,” I said to the crowd. “We have guns and tanks and bombs. And they’re better than anything you have – we’re way ahead of you.”

The imam could no longer disguise his anger. “I tell you, he’s lying,” he said. “Our guns and bombs are much better than theirs…

So there we were, the imam and I, delegates from two superseded civilizations vying with each other to lay claim to the violence of the West.”

 

Ghosh writes well, and one is awed by his scholarship and understanding of the issues he writes about, as well the vast spectrum of human populace he observes. He is honest in his assessments. Yet, when it comes closer to home, he provides an instance where his honesty is called into question. In the introductory part of the essay titled ‘The Fundamentalist Challenge”, he talks of how, in his own words, “intellectual pedigrees of most versions of religious extremism around the world today can be traced to [similar] moments of conversion”. He goes on to give some example, relevant to South Asia and Middle East. For the lack of anything else, he chooses to say this, for the case of Hindu extremism:

“Swami Vivekananda, the late nineteenth-century thinker who is today claimed by Hindu extremists as a founding father, was famously a rationalist in the best positivist tradition, until he underwent a dramatic conversion.”

This statement is ludicrous, not because of the claims of Hindu extremist groups, which is irrelevant, but in the manner in which it tends to imply that the conversion turned him into an irrational, as if Swamiji was a proponent of Hindu extremism thereafter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The extremists may claim anything Mr. Ghosh, but don’t you, as a conscientious writer, realize the fallacy hidden behind your statement? Swami Vivekananda was a sage, a saint, and the “dramatic conversion” that your scholastic prose is talking of is bluntly termed as a spiritual experience, in the grace of his guru, the great, Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Surely Mr. Ghosh, you are aware of his secular and reformist influences on Hinduism?

The statement thus appears laughable to anyone but pseudo seculars out to prove a point. Or is it that too much of intellectual study blinds one from simple truths? The futility of all this scholarship is perhaps it leaves behind little else but interesting essays, some confusion and a dread of the place we call home.

Tibet, key to Asia by Amaury de Riencourt

Title: Roof of the World Tibet, Key to Asia Author: Amaury de Riencourt Read: June 2007

Map of Tibet thanks to savetibet.org

mapoftibet.gifI have always been intrigued by Buddhism. When I first visited Sikkim, I had a chance to visit the Rumtek monastery and was immediately in awe of it. The land too held a spell on me and it has always been hard to return to the humdrum of mundane existence from Sikkim. The visits were short, only a few days, but held for me the promise of longer sojourns and the possibility of long term stay in my later years. Searching for information on Sikkim on the internet, I came across a reference to this particular book. There was also an excerpt which immediately piqued my interest. The book is no longer in print, and I acquired a copy from Amazon.com, the 1950 hardcover first edition published in the US by Rinehart and Co. The pages are worn out, so it needs delicate handling(I ruffled a couple of pages before becoming more cautious).

The book itself is a travelogue but strays into the political history and religious practices of Tibet – which is probably inevitable given how deeply Buddhism is intertwined in every aspect of Tibetan life. It starts with the author’s journey from Sikkim, where he enters Tibet through the Nathu-La pass. He journeys on mule back (Tibet had no automobiles or motor-able roads at that time) across several Tibetan cities to reach Lasha, the capital city – where he spends several months. Geographical descriptions of the landscape intersperse with the distinctive characters of the cities that he passes through. Culture and food habits, initially repulsive, gradually grow on him. Buttered tea, which Tibetans consume by gallons and is a great social lubricator, sounds nice, but once you find out it’s ingredients you may not want to taste it, regardless how it might affect your palate. Here’s the recipe from the author:

“tea, which is grown in China and carried to Tibet in brick-shape, is mixed with a soda that is found on the banks of rivers or margins of lakes. The mixture is thrown into a huge cauldron and tepid water is poured over it. The whole lot is then boiled. Salt and rancid butter, several years old if possible, soon joins this boiling soup and the buttered tea is churned. Very often, the flavor enhanced with the addition of yak dung.”

Tibet also has(or used to have) extremely filthy cities, with little or no sewage systems – a stark contrast to the breathtakingly beautiful sceneries of the isolated lands. The author in general is enamored by the friendly disposition of the Tibetans and their happy, child-like nature, their colorful rituals and customs. He feels that Tibetan farmers are much better off financially than their counterparts in India, China and elsewhere in Asia, although the country is technologically backward and lives in the feudal middle-ages.

It is important to keep in mind that very few Westerners had traveled to Tibet during the time of de Riencourt’s odyssey. Tibet was largely a mysterious land hidden in the clouds of the high Himalayan plateaus. De Riencourt’s account of Tibet’s geo-political history comprises the second phase of the book – and it is surprisingly comprehensive, spanning the timeframe from the pre-Buddha era to the time before the Chinese invasion in 1950. De Riencourt’s concern about Communist China’s dominion proved valid. He finds it surprising that such a strategically important land should be thus neglected by Western powers, as he notes in his epilogue:

“Tibet is now caught between the two great currents sweeping across Asia: the Marxist flood from the north and the east, and Gandhi’s mystical democracy from the west and the south. Tibet has become a border country, standing on the colossal frontier dividing two worlds.
Can the Western powers ignore the dramatic possibility of Tibet being invaded by the Communists? Can they now understand the terrifying implications of selfishly abandoning, of delivering, almost, this fabulous country to the most ruthless and destructive tyranny that has ever existed?”

The last and final phase of the book delves into occult and mystical practices of Tibetan Buddhism. There’s a precursor to this in a chapter entitled “The Wheel of Existence” wherein the author distinguishes western religions(Christianity and Islam specifically) to their Oriental counterparts(Hinduism and Buddhism), and talks about the roots of Buddhism and the significance of karma. The basic evil is suffering, which is caused by ignorance, leading to desire, producing action(karma). One is not free from one’s actions unless free from ignorance. Desire causes rebirths, which is how the Wheel of Existence keeps revolving, enmeshing one in one’s karma, the Wheel symbolizing the world of the senses.

 

In a private conversation with the Rinpoche of the Dragon Monastery(Duk Ralung), deReincourt hears a first hand account of the wonders of Tibetan Yoga – instantly drying an ice-cold wet blanket with the heat generated from one’s body and transfering one’s consciousness to another body being some of the miraculous acts. However, the Rinpoche notes that these are mere “illusions of the sangaric world” — the final goal being the transendence of the world of phenomenon to ultimate reality(nirvana), and he rightly notes:

“Such transcendental illumination cannot be communicated, it can only be experienced.”

This treatise, although not a literary masterpiece, is certainly a fascinating read for anyone interested in Tibet and Buddhism, and mildly interesting to probably everyone.

 

© 2007 mystic-wanderer