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Fantasy, Probability and Reality

Ashok Vohra

By Alai Translated from the Chinese by  Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin
Penguin India, New Delhi, 2002, pp. viii 416, Rs. 295.00


Tibet geographically is to the South-West of mainland China. The Tibetan nomads settled in this region several centuries ago. Because of its geographical location the Tibetans were largely insulated from the changes taking place in the outside world. Administratively, the region was divided into small territories, which were ruled by chieftains – who were the heads of the strongest and the richest families in the territory. They owned large number of slaves, a retinue of personal servants, small armies trained in traditional ways of combat and equipped with age-old traditional arms like bows and arrows. The modern techniques of warfare and arms like the guns, pistols, not to talk of aeroplanes etc. were unknown to them. Their writ ran large on their subjects whom they treated as their ‘livestock’. They taught their heirs to “ride them (the subjects) like horses or beat them like dogs, but . . . never treat them like humans”. They had their own methods of carrying out justice, rewards and punishment. Their political authority and legitimacy was derived from the Chinese emperors and military governments who were the arbiters to the disputes between the chieftains. The Chinese emperors and military governments generally left the chieftains alone and did not interfere in their affairs, as their wealth by Chinese standards was not much to bother about.   The chieftains lived a promiscuous life and were at loggerheads with each other over territorial issues and there were recurrent skirmishes for supremacy between the neighbouring chieftains. Being primarily an agrarian society their fortunes were constantly changing with the change of climatic conditions and the produce in their fields. They looked to the Han region of China to their East for their prosperity and legitimacy rather than to the western regions of Lhasa and Shingaste, which were established centres of traditional Buddhist learning and had many monasteries. The chieftain, the headman who controlled the serfs, kabas (messengers), family slaves represented the hierarchy in the society. The monks, the artisans, the shamans, and the performers had the freedom to choose their status at will. This languid state of the society continued from times immemorial till the Red revolution in China, which permanently eroded the age-old form of life.   The story in this novel captures from an insider’s point of view the social and political life, culture, traditions, beliefs and values of the traditional Tibetan society. It narrates the changes that the traditional Tibetan society ...

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