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HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: A Childhood in Tibet; A Biography by Therese Obrecht Hodler

Review: A Childhood in Tibet; A Biography by Therese Obrecht Hodler

136pp, ₹399; Penguin Random House India

In October 1958, the Tibetan government dispatched Paljor Jigme Namseling to Lhoka in south Tibet, then the nerve centre of Tibet’s armed resistance against Chinese rule. Lhoka was controlled by 8,000 Tibetan fighters but they were confronted by 40,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers. At the time, the Tibetan government was under relentless pressure from the PLA to put an end to Tibet’s armed resistance. The mission of Namseling and the delegation he headed was to open negotiations to this end. Instead, Namseling joined the resistance movement. In 1959, the Tibetan resistance in Lhoka crumbled and along with others Namseling fled to India.

Though he was safe in Kalimpong, an entrepot between Tibet and India famous for its mule train, Namseling constantly worried about the fate of his family left behind in Lhasa. Later he learnt his wife had given birth to their sixth child, Tendol.

A Childood in Tibet is Tendol’s story and 1959, the year she was born, is imprinted on the minds of every Tibetan. That was the year when Tibet, that had gone from independence to an ambiguous rule under Beijing, came under direct military control of the PLA.

A and Tendol (right). Tendol: “A was my best friend. Her parents were section leaders and therefore our superiors in Lhasa. They were not allowed to talk to us or show that they appreciated us. A furtively gave me bread when I told her a secret, for example that my mother was in prison or that we had relatives abroad. She often accompanied me when I tried to see my mother in prison.” (Courtesy A Childhood in Tibet)
A and Tendol (right). Tendol: “A was my best friend. Her parents were section leaders and therefore our superiors in Lhasa. They were not allowed to talk to us or show that they appreciated us. A furtively gave me bread when I told her a secret, for example that my mother was in prison or that we had relatives abroad. She often accompanied me when I tried to see my mother in prison.” (Courtesy A Childhood in Tibet)

Tendol’s first childhood memory was thamzing, struggle sessions, a dramatized version of class struggle in which the exploited confronted their exploiters, real or assumed. As Tendol tells it, “Children had to testify against other children or against their parents, neighbours against neighbours, pupils against pupils, tenants against landowners, former servants against their landlords.”

The thamzing sessions did not consist of verbal abuse alone. Tibet’s communist masters encouraged the Tibetan toiling masses to indulge in physical violence. “Children had to spit in the face of their father or mother and beat them with all their strength.”

The monks suffered the most. They were handcuffed and dragged on the streets lined with crowds on both sides. Large paper dunce caps were placed on their heads. The dunce caps were in most cases inscribed with the word “reactionary”. They were accused of sustaining feudal superstitions and living off the sweat and toil of the exploited masses.

When Tendol was five, she and her mother, Choekyi, were bundled off to a road construction camp in Kongpo in south Tibet, near the Indian border. In the camp, the thamzing sessions continued every evening. These sessions were defined as “re-education of class enemies.” Tendol’s mother was a prime target, being a member of old Tibet’s ruling class. Tendol attended the class struggle. One day the cook at the camp told Tendol’s mother that her daughter “played thamzing all by herself, screaming and hammering on objects with a stick.” Tendol’s mother was horrified.

This picture of Choekyi and her children was taken for her husband Paljor Jigme Namseling after Tendol’s birth and smuggled to Kalimpong (Courtesy A Childhood in Tibet)
This picture of Choekyi and her children was taken for her husband Paljor Jigme Namseling after Tendol’s birth and smuggled to Kalimpong (Courtesy A Childhood in Tibet)

Years later, Pema, Tendol’s friend, explained. “If something was conceived to break the soul of a people, it must be these struggle sessions. Only faith in the Dalai Lama and religion saved people from dying.”

In 1970, a year after the start of the Cultural Revolution, Tendol’s mother was packed off to Lhasa’s notorious Gutsa prison where she spent 10 years. Her prison sentence reads: “The active counter-revolutionary Choekyi is a Tibetan and currently 44. Her family belongs to the class of feudal lords and she herself is a member of the feudal lords. She was lawfully imprisoned on December 9th, 1970 for active counter-revolution and sabotage.” More specifically, Choekyi’s prison sentence accused her of distributing amulets and talismans to the participants of the 1959 peaceful uprising in Lhasa. Her prison sentence reads: “The insurgents took these objects and used them as protective amulets during the uprising.”

A key to Choekyi’s harsh prison sentence was her husband’s connection to Tibet’s armed resistance movement. As Tendol tells it, “A frequent guest at the Namseling house was the legendary Angdrutsang Gompo Tashi, who founded the Khampa resistance force… Long discussions frequently took place behind closed doors. Choekyi brought tea to the men. Except for her, no outsiders were allowed to enter the room or to know who was taking part in the conversations.”

Author Therese Obrecht Hodler (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Therese Obrecht Hodler (Courtesy the publisher)

The Maoist frenzy called the Cultural Revolution came to an end with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Then China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping appointed two liberal leaders, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, to run China and overturn the enormous economic damage inflicted on the country. A new era of limited liberalization was introduced. In Tibet this included tax exemption for a period of three years and Tibetans on both sides of the Himalayas were allowed to visit each other. This provided Tendol the opportunity to leave Tibet and happily settle in Switzerland and raise a family.

A Childhood in Tibet, as told to Therese Obrecht Hodler, is a detailed yet painful contribution to Tibet’s rich and growing resistance literature. It is a harrowing account of Tibetan experience under Beijing’s rule.

Thubten Samphel is an independent researcher and a former director of the Tibet Policy Institute.

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