Book of the Month: Pema and the Yak by Siofra O’Donavan
Pema and the Yak was an accidental, but timely find for me. I was on a very short and hurried trip to McLeod Ganj, the seat of Tibet’s government in exile. It is a tourist place to the core, with a picturesque view of Dhauladhar range, delicious cuisine of every kind in the restaurants run by Tibetans (now mostly India-born) and Indians alike, sufficiently commercialized Tibetan wares in the shops and the exoticism of colorful Buddhist buildings standing out amongst the dingy to okay-ish dwellings available for visitors at reasonable rates.
But guilt set in quickly for me. This tourism is built on the misery, loss and exile of a whole people. It’s fine to enjoy the cuisine and wares and mountains, but one has to stop and think what the exile of two generations has done to these people? The question was gnawing at me, but unfortunately I am not the kind of person who can strike conversations easily and make people open up to me. This book, which I spotted in a bookstore in McLeod Ganj was thus a godsend. It helped that it not only covered what I wanted to understand, but was also well-written.
It is easy to picture heroic, resilient people whose sole aim in life to get their land and country back, waiting and struggling till eternity for it. But can that be the reality? Can the day to day concerns and ambitions of people be sacrificed at the altar of this great vision which grows more impossible and blurry with every passing day? Can you really sit in judgement over a youngster who has never seen this promised land and dreams of going even further away – to the US and UK – for a better life? What about the elders who are still fierce, or those who have lost hope and are dying?
There is a human story for each one of those picturesque, cute, exotically dressed people: the lamas, the political exiles, the traditional teachers and doctors. This is a complicated and sometimes perilous history of their relationship with the locals.
Can a society whose structure has changed beyond recognition in the conditions of exile be restored even if their land was recovered? Especially when some of those changes are actually for the better, such as the breakdown of the old feudal theocratic hierarchy.
Yet who is to decide what is a better change and what is worse. Consider these telling quotes from the book about people of nomadic tribes, who have lost their tribe.
Without a herd, a nomad cannot be a nomad. He can only be a wanderer.
For a nomad it is a trauma to settle, just as it is a trauma for a settled person to take to the roads and live in tents, as so many refugees around the world have to do today.
Pema and the Yak is the fascinating story of a journey through the Himalaya along the Indo-Tibetan border into the heart of Tibet in Exile. Encounters with oracles, lamas, ex-political prisoners, Tibetan doctors, DJs, nomads, guerilla fighters, painters, poets, missionaries and Himalayan royalty paint a vibrant picture of Tibetans living in exile today.
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