Despite the fascination with the lofty peaks of Tibet among seekers of adventure as well as spiritual salvation, most travellers remain woefully unaware of the fate of the tiny nation and its people. For those looking to educate themselves on the multi-layered reality of Tibet, Tsewang Yishey Pemba’s work of historical fiction, White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings, is just the book.

The founding father of Tibetan-English literature, Pemba has written not so much a novel as a meditation on the battle between tradition and modernity, individual choice, and the role religion plays in people’s lives. His gift for creating complicated characters and nuanced situations disallow the reader from arriving at simplistic solutions. Instead, as the plot progresses, we come to realise that, far from providing closure, the role of the book is to become part of the very incomplete and confusing edifice it seeks to describe, watching eagerly as history unfolds.

East meets west

Pastor John Stevens and his wife Mary set sail from San Francisco for the coasts of Shanghai. The year is 1924, and the missionary couple are eager to spread the word of their god, to save and bring into the light those who merely “chase shadows”. Like Pemba himself, the couple are trained in medicine. At Shanghai, they meet the fanatic Reverend Parkinson, who confesses his vision of converting Central Asia to Christianity. To do this, all of Tibet must be converted first. John and Mary are chosen by Reverend Parkinson to set up the first Christian mission in the beautiful Nyarong Valley of the Kham province, in Eastern Tibet.

Because the area is home to the fierce Nyarong Khampa tribe, the mission is considered a death wish by all. All, that is, except John and Mary themselves, who are very eager to fulfil their task. They travel to the remote Nyarong and set up its first Bethlehem Lutheran Mission (BLM) mission. The fate of the American couple with the people of Nyarong is conjoined for several decades to come.

Pemba never takes sides throughout the narrative, instead drawing every character in a sympathetic light. Be it when the zealous Stephen Murwell, who occasionally visits John and Mary, spews venom at the “naïve” Tibetans for worshipping a false god, or when the vicious Rithangtsang clan suspects the foreigners of carrying curses and evil spirits that are causing the crops to fail and the children to fall sick, the novel never takes the mandate to demean or ridicule any stance. Instead, it forces the reader to think beyond what is immediately said or done, to try and perceive the deeper hopes, insecurities, and fears of the people.

The many tensions that bring about the clash of civilisations become evident as the novel progresses. Some, like the Dragotsang clan, are accepting and tolerant of the foreign religion. John and Mary, too, over time, learn the ways of the Nyarong Khampas, their ways and their traditions. They come to understand the complexity of the belief systems of Tibetan Buddhism and come to appreciate the profound effect it has on believers.

The book upends any one-dimensional idea of Tibet. Along with the American couple, the reader is thrown off guard with completely unexpected realities and situations throughout the course of the novel. Whether it’s when the couple discovers that there are “broad-hipped” prostitutes in the trader town of Dartsedo, right next to the local church, or when Drolma, a villager in Nyarong, curses the Tibetan gods for being unable to cure her epilepsy, or when the Khenpo displays the wide range of weapons he uses to train his warriors in case of an invasion, the reader will find themselves constantly renegotiating their idea of Tibet.

A patchwork of details

Pemba’s intricately woven tapestry promises, above all, ingenuity. The birth of Paul Stevens, the first American to have taken birth in Tibet, is only the first of many more such events that populate the narrative. The author draws his readers in with vivid descriptions and an intriguing storyline. In narrating incidents and developing characters, it is his own fascination with his people and their interaction with the world that speak through his words.

However, perhaps owing to the great number of events that occur in the novel, several little vignettes are given only cursory treatment, and potential connections between characters are established but are not followed through. The minor plot points are not revisited either. Yet, it does not make the story feel incomplete, for the very course of events that take place in Tibet leave several loose ends and incomplete wishes among its people. The novel, in that sense, simply mimics reality.

While Pemba is certainly sympathetic to the Tibetan way of life, especially after it is uprooted by the Chinese communists, he does not hold back when describing some of the disturbing practices and problematic ideas that punctuate various character’s world-views. For instance, he describes the brutal funeral rites conducted by the Nyraong Khampas, wherein the body of the child is taken up to the mountains by a close relative, chopped into pieces, and fed to the vultures.

Another instance is when he describes the cruel vindictiveness which is the flip side of the bravery and honour held dear by the Khampas. Enraged by her insubordination, an adolescent Tenga confesses to Paul his intention to rape Khadro Tsomo (ultimately foiled by Paul who manages to warn her) to teach her a lesson. The landscape of the novel is littered with complicated scenarios, each of which ultimately requires the reader to take a stance.

The language employed in the novel is simple, and effective. The plot flows smoothly over the course of several decades. The reader does not feel cut off from the narrative – in fact, they feel part of this intimate and secluded world. At times, the section breaks appear like anchors to prevent the reader from drifting away completely in the gripping world woven by the author.

Enter the communists

An era of seclusion and autonomy comes to an end when the communists arrive in the Nyarong Valley. Initially, they offer the Tibetans an opportunity to assimilate themselves in their way of life by overthrowing the hegemony of the Lamas and the Rinpoches. It soon turns into a tussle for power between the two groups. Paul, Tenga, and many other young warriors launch guerrilla attacks on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from the mountains, a battle that continues endlessly while the temples and shrines in Nyarong are destroyed, the monks humiliated and killed, and invaluable relics destroyed. Outnumbered and outwitted, Paul and his warriors must find a solution, lest their homeland is lost to Chinese Communists forever.

Pemba resists the all-too-easy temptation of demonising the Chinese and turning the novel into another insipid tale about good versus evil. Instead, he tries to understand the reason behind the communists’ fury. Wang, region Commander of the PLA, traces his hatred for religion and the bourgeoise to the commonplace violence and poverty that infected his childhood. Pemba notes that, to Wang, if there were ever a benevolent, personal, merciful, compassionate, all-caring god in the universe, they certainly were singularly absent from Wang’s village.

Drawing on the single-minded conquest made by the communists, and the valiant struggles of the Khampas, Pemba articulates several stories of resistance that have largely been lost in the snowy mountains of Tibet. The reader is left wondering whether the Tibetan’s hope of regaining their way of life will ever be possible. When a terrible betrayal of the Tibetan people follows on the heels of the PLA’s foot soldiers, the story assumes epic proportions, one where there are no winners, no losers; –only sufferers.

White Crane, Lend me your Wings is a candle in a room left in the dark far too long.

White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings: A Tibetan Tale of Love and War, Tsewang Yishey Pemba, Niyogi Books.