Monday, March 15, 2010

REVIEW: Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule

Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule
Tubten Khetsun (Author), Matthew Akester (Translator)
Columbia University Press / Penguin
Rs 450
Pp 318
ISBN: 0231142862

Born in 1941, Tubten KhA(c)tsun is a nephew of the Gyatso Tashi Khendrung, one of the senior government officials taken prisoner after the Tibetan peoples' uprising of March 10, 1959. KhA(c)tsun himself was arrested while defending the Dalai Lama's summer palace, and after four years in prisons and labor camps, he spent close to two decades in Lhasa as a requisitioned laborer and "class enemy." In this eloquent autobiography, KhA(c)tsun describes what life was like during those troubled years. His account is one of the most dispassionate, detailed, and readable firsthand descriptions yet published of Tibet under the Communist occupation. KhA(c)tsun talks of his prison experiences as well as the state of civil society following his release, and he offers keenly observed accounts of well-known events, such as the launch of the Cultural Revolution, as well as lesser-known aspects of everyday life in occupied Lhasa.

Since Communist China continues to occupy Tibet, the facts of this era remain obscure, and few of those who lived through it have recorded their experiences at length. KhA(c)tsun's story will captivate any reader seeking a refreshingly human account of what occurred during the Maoists' shockingly brutal regime.

Too far apart Financial Express
‘ far apart as the earth and sky’, a highly evocative idiom that liberally peppers Tubten Khetsun’s book, Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule, could well be the defining depiction of the Tibetan and official Chinese accounts of the period following the People’s Liberation Army (PLA’s) march into Tibet in 1950. The book under review was originally published in India in Tibetan language under the title Dka’ sdug ‘og gi byung ba brjod pa (An account of painful events). It thus appears to be originally intended for the literate Tibetan audience. Subsequently, the Columbia University Press took it up with the help of Matthew Akester’s brilliant translation to bring it to the western and English readership in 2008 and finally Penguin India brought it out toward the end of 2009.

The author of the book under review, despite his admission as such, (pp 297) is not from the ranks of the ordinary Tibetans. By virtue of being the nephew of a senior government official, he belonged to the ranks of the minor aristocracy of Tibet as the brief family history at the start of the book informs us. He became involved, at the age of 18 years, in the Lhasa uprising of March 10, 1959. As rumours of Chinese plans to eliminate the Dalai Lama engulfed the city, Tubten Khetsun was among those who formed a defensive cordon around Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, during which he was captured by the PLA. One-third of the book recounts the author’s experiences as a prisoner. Shorn of literary flourishes, and consistently austere, there is a calm, detached manner in which Tubten Khetsun describes his ordeal as also that of his fellow inmates in the different prisons he was sent to. A stark, but highly visual, description of an angry PLA official (pp 230) particularly remains etched in one’s mind, with due appreciation of the translator’s skills and understanding.

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