Novels about Tibet are rare, one in English by a Tibetan even rarer. For most readers, Tibetan titles tend to be non-fiction books focusing on Buddhism and meditation, and occasional memoirs of old Tibet. So Tshewang Yishi Pemba’s posthumous novel, White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings, published in February in India, marks an important milestone for Tibetan writing.
Pemba, a Western-trained surgeon, has several books to his name, including an earlier novel published in London in the 1960s during his time as a medical student there. That novel, Idols on the Path, is considered the first novel in English by a Tibetan.
Tibetan literature in English is relatively unmapped territory.
The biggest dilemma facing most writers about Tibet, whether historians or novelists, is to find novel ways to communicate the trauma of the defining moment in contemporary Tibetan history. Pemba addresses this conundrum by locating a new and as-yet-untold aspect of Tibetan history: the presence of Christian missionaries and their little-known peccadilloes in the Himalayas. This also gives him the license to render Tibetan-set dialogue into perfect English. Thus, this novel tells of two invasions of Tibet, the first by missionaries from California who try to convert and proselytize the Tibetans, efforts which fail spectacularly when they fail to convince the battle-hardened khampa warriors to give up Buddhism or their dharma in favor of the teachings of the Christ; the second is the better-known one by Chinese troops, opposed here by the some of these same missionaries as well as of course the Tibetans.
Merging two storylines into one single seamless narrative is always a challenge and the results here are mixed, with some Western characters failing to quite come alive at times. Some of the key protagonists in the novel are offspring of missionaries, such as Paul, who fights against the Chinese army, marries a Tibetan, and “thinks like a Tibetan”, speaks English only haltingly, and when offered cigars by the American diplomats after reaching Calcutta, “smokes them like cigarettes.”
But that is a small distraction for the story that is so richly-detailed, and that features the author’s deep knowledge of Tibetan culture, religion, costume, cuisine and multiple dialects all of which succeeds in bringing to life eye the people of that era and, of course, the famously awe-inspiring landscape in all its haunting beauty. The fighting scenes are particularly vividly imagined: the body language, swagger and gallantry of the Khampa warrior protagonists as well as the Chinese all wonderfully described. The novel has as much exotica as erotica, the latter, as one might expect from a doctor, rendered in ethnographic detail, breaking all stereotypes of Buddhist puritanism. And the description of Shanghai bathhouse decadence of Kuomintang era must rank amongst the best there is.
The author’s knowledge of Tibetan culture and penetrating insights derive from his work as a physician working in the Western Himalayas (an illustrious career in service of his people that was celebrated in, amongst other places, the Times of London and the Telegraph when he passed away in 2012.) The book’s title, which is borrowed from a famous song by the Sixth Dalai Lama, has particular resonance for Tibetans: it can be interpreted as a heartfelt plea by Tibetans to return to their country just as homesick Tibetan children in the colonial-era boarding schools in Indian hill stations (Pemba among them) would long to go back to their parents behind the snow-capped Himalayas.
Anyone following the global refugee crisis should find considerable contemporary relevance in the novel. Pemba traces, in fewer than 350 pages, the displacement of Tibetans from the beautiful towns of pre-occupation Tibet to the streets of Kalimpong, Rajasthan and Calcutta.
Given the number of Tibetans that have found a second home in India, the birthplace of Buddhism, it is not an accident that this fascinating historical novel is published there. Tibetan literary writers find it hard to get published anywhere; Tibetan literature in English is relatively unmapped territory. The publication of White Crane Lend Me Your Wings has somewhat tipped the scales and will hopefully encourage more Tibetan stories to be told in print.