Saturday, 30 June 2012

Book Review: “Sky Train – Tibetan Women On The Edge Of History” by Sam Canyon

Writer and activist, Canyon Sam, a third generation American of Chinese origin, goes to Tibet for the second time in 2007. The first visit had been in 1986 when Tibet had just been opened to foreign tourists. During the second visit, Sam is able to take the sky train which connects Tibet to western China. According to the pleasant male voice Sam heard through the sky train’s public address system, the Golmund to Lhasa section, is 709 miles long, for which construction work had begun in 2001 and began operating in 2006, seven months before Sam’s journey. The highest point at 16,640 feet, is at a higher elevation than the railroads in Peru. The sky train has not only allowed the Han Chinese to loot Tibet (which the Chinese call the Western Treasure House, for its wealth, in the form of mineral deposits and timber), it has also facilitated the immigration of Han Chinese to Tibet on an unprecedented scale.

Sky train is the story of four extraordinary Tibetan women whom Sam met in various places – in Dharmasala, Switzerland, Lhasa and elsewhere, whose tales symbolise the struggles and trauma undergone by the women of Tibet on account of the Chinese invasion. Sam tells us that the experiences of Tibetan women are different from and much worse than that of the men. At the time of the Chinese take-over, Tibet was a primitive, pre-industrial society, which was also patriarchal with a capital P. Tibetan Buddhism taught that women were inferior creatures and women prayed that in their next birth, they be reborn as men. The Chinese came to Tibet in 1950 and formally annexed it in 1959. There was fighting and bloodshed and many Tibetans were killed. Many more fled to India. The bulk of those who left Tibet were men. Very few women managed to escape. Why was that? Because generally men did not want to take their womenfolk with them. Sam tells us of a Rinpoche who refused to have women in his caravan, causing one Mr. Paljorkhyimsar to leave behind his wife, one of the four women around whom this story is centred, as they fled Tibet. So they women stayed behind, doing their best to preserve Tibetan culture. Many of them were imprisoned and tortured. The majority of the inmates of Chinese labour camps were women.

Sam met her four women for the first time in the 1990s and she meets them again many times afterwards. There’s Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar, Mrs. Namseling, Mrs. Taring and Sonam Choedron. Their stories are unique and heart-rending. As mentioned above, Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar’s husband left her behind in Tibet since the Rinpoche he was escorting to safety refused to have a woman in his caravan. She spent a total of 22 years prison and labour camps before she managed to leave for Switzerland where she was reunited with her family. Mrs. Namseling came from a working class family, and at the age of fourteen was married off to a government official twice her age, who coerced her mother to give her in marriage. Despite such a rough start to the marriage, her husband turned out to be a kind man and one of her daughters ultimately married the prince of Gangtok, which was an independent country at that time. After her marriage, Mrs. Namseling led a life of leisure. The women went to each others houses, sang songs and played games. Essentially every day was Sunday. A witness to the bombing of the Dalai Lama’s palace by the Chinese in 1959, Mrs. Namseling too spent time in prison – a total of nine years. Mrs. Taring came from one of Tibet’s oldest families, learned English in Darjeeling in the 1920s, founded the Tibetan Homes Foundation in India which housed and eduated thousands of Tibetan children orphaned in 1959. The fourth lady, Sonam Choedron who had been born and raised in Lhasa, was involved in underground intelligence work for many years, in the hope of freeing Tibet from Chinese rule. Captured and put in prison, she was released in the winter of 1991. Life was cruel to her even after her release - her cabbie son was murdered by a passenger. Sonam Choedron found it possible to pardon the murderer. In May 1992, Sonam and a daughter managed to get leave to travel to Shigatse to do a puja and escaped to India.

Sam calls herself a student of Buddhism. When asked what her interest in Tibet is, was it Buddhism, was it politics, the land or the people, Sam’s reply was ‘total.’ Mind you Sam doesn’t call herself a Buddhist. She also does not explain how she reconciles her immense respect for Tibetan Buddhism with her anger at some of its anachronistic values, especially towards women. The Dalai Lama, who has written the foreword to this book, has repeatedly stressed the need for non-violence in dealing with the Chinese, while at the same time emphasising the need for retaining Tibetan language and culture. Sam doesn’t question the wisdom of the Dalai Lama’s pacifist teachings. In this modern age, there are very few examples of primitive societies resisting a foreign invader successfully. Vietnam and Afghanistan come to mind immediately. In both cases, the locals received assistance from the enemies of their enemies and they used violence to win their freedom. Does Sam feel that Tibetans can win freedom from the Chinese without the use of force? Or does she think violence would be futile and just as Gandhi was right in emphasising non-violence, so’s the Dalai Lama? Sam does not answer these questions, let along raise them. Her focus is only on telling the stories of the four women mentioned above.

I found myself comparing China’s exploitation of Tibet with the exploitation by various European nations of their colonies. Modern technology has allowed China to drain wealth from Tibet and pollute it on a scale unimaginable a few decades ago. Mind you, mainland China has also been polluted just as much, if not more. The Chinese consider Tibetans to be primitive cousins who need to be civilised. However, there is no racist animosity towards them. For example, there are no restrictions on Han Chinese marrying Tibetans. Thus when Sam spends Losar (the Tibetan New Year) with her friend Tashi’s family in Lhasa, we meet Tashi’s brother-in-law who is half-Chinese, as he sets off fireworks from their terrace. In contrast, the British especially, did not want inter-racial marriages in their colonies. The white man’s burden, fuelled by plain vanilla greed, was the engine which drove European exploitation of the colonies. For China, it is greed mixed with the desire to integrate a primitive and long-lost part of China with the mainland.

China’s treatment of Tibetans is also eerily similar to the way European settlers in America treated the natives of that continent. In addition to introducing a number of diseases hitherto unknown to the Tibetans, the easy availability of liquor has resulted in a serious drinking problem in Tibet.

Sam writes well, though at times I caught myself wishing this book was more structured and less rambling. The best bit about Sky Train is towards the end when Sam’s friend Tibetan friend Tashi asks Sam to carry a gift for the Dalai Lama to Dharmasala. The gift consists of a robe left behind at the Norbulingka, the traditional summer residence of Dalai Lamas, in 1959 and saved by Tashi’s aunt for the last fifty odd years. Tashi’s folk thought the robe might have belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. In addition to the robe, Tashi’s mother has sewn a shirt from some other cloth the aunt had saved. Sam is to hand over the gifts to the Dalai Lama and obtain a receipt. Yes, a receipt and two beads from his mala. A mala, the index tells us, is a string of 108 beads used by Tibetan Buddhists for counting prayers and mantras. Does Sam succeed in handing over the gifts to the Dalai Lama and getting a receipt, not to mention two beads from his mala? Please read this book to find out.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, wikipedia tells us that the name Canyon Sam came about when as a teenager, Sam had a dream about a beautiful canyon and changed her name.

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