The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong
Public Affairs: New York, 2015
Once a year I meet up with friends of my late father's generation, peacefully chatting about our phayul, remembering old stories and personalities and speaking our local dialect. These are moments I cherish for they make me feel I am part of history; that I am carrying on the torch. This time however, the peace evaporated quickly when a man at the lower end of our table suddenly exclaimed to everyone assembled: "Did you hear? Gyalo Thondup wrote a book. In it, he says sdugchag zhedrag ("nasty things") about Bapa Yeshi!"
"Is it true?" One of my father's friend's gave me a questioning look, "You read the book".
I did read it and he is critical of Bapa Yeshi, it is true. But Gyalo Thondup writes unfavourably about others as well, not just the quixotic people in the resistance. No wonder readers have protested his interpretation of events. Even his co-author finds it necessary to distance herself by adding a strange disclaimer in the epilogue in the style of "whatever is written here, I am just the writer and not liable for the content".
But do I want to get involved? Forgive me. I am tired of them: Controversies. To me it is he-said-she-said. What do I know? I am of a different generation. The biggest takeaway for someone like me is how Gyalo Thondup established contact with the Chinese and how the Tibetan side - maladroit, insecure and ill-advised - missed every single opportunity to come to an agreement. In my view, there is much to be learned from these failures.
Gyalo Thondup cites two specific instances in which the Tibetan side wasted opportunities for talks. The first occurred under Deng Xiaoping when both sides came to an agreement to hold talks about the Dalai Lama's return. The Chinese side stated it would be ready to meet his representatives anywhere he likes. Instead of settling the question of location with the dialogue partner first, the Tibetans pompously blared out to the world that talks were going to be held in Geneva. The Chinese side saw the faux pas as proof that the Tibetans were not seriously comitted. They immediately broke off communication.
The second instance was handled so poorly we continue to struggle with its consequences. The Tibetan side caused a disaster beyond all expectations in connection with the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. Looking at the proceedings everything was on a good way: The search team in Tibet had done all the preparatory work and remarkably so had the consent of the Chinese authorities to consult with the Dalai Lama in order to come to a final decision. The Tibetans then again surged ahead unilaterally, proclaiming this child is the new Panchen Lama without informing their Chinese counterpart first. What a debacle. The humiliated Chinese reacted by demonstratively picking another child with the Dalai Lama's appointee never to be seen again.
The takeaway from these two instances is very important and Gyalo Thondup points this out as well: The Tibetan leadership in India needs to alter its communication culture and refrain from constantly involving the global media at every step. They need to better understand Chinese culture and etiquette. Going public is the last step, taken together after mutual agreement. Since then, the two sides have not been on speaking terms. Any attempts from the Tibetans to revive the talks have failed. A few years ago, Gyalo Thondup's successors, the Dalai Lama's envoys unable to live up to earlier successes, threw in the towel in frustration.
My impression is that instead of learning from their gigantic mistakes, the Tibetan side is doing anything it can to deepen the rift and aggravate the consequences from the communication fiasco. If I critically reflect without preconception, not only have we blasted the Panchen Lama succession, but by insisting that the China-appointed Panchen Lama is not authentic, we have also spent the last twenty years opting for confrontation. Is it not time we ask ourselves what the benefit of insisting should be? It is too late to have another candidate installed. Beijing's appointee is grown up and sits firmly in the saddle. According to recent reports, he also begins to show some backbone by speaking up on issues that are important for the Tibetan people. Given the circumstances this should be a reason for cautious optimism. If we recall, the selection process of the previous Panchen Lama was troubled by similar legitimacy problems. He succeeded in silencing the critics precisely by letting his actions speak. Tibetans are pious but they are also pragmatic. When the person is perceived to fulfill the responsibility that comes with the role, it becomes less important whether a reincarnation is "authentic". I say it is time to stop harping on about principles and give the young Panchen Lama in Beijing a chance.
If the Tibetan side is truly committed to getting the Dalai Lama back to Tibet in this lifetime, it is better to work for a rapprochement between him and the Panchen Lama in Beijing. Consider how awkward it will be for the Dalai Lama to be meeting with the Panchen Lama whom he has opposed all these years. How can they play their traditional roles to benefit all Tibetans if they are not aligned? Thus, those who truly want to see Kundun back in his native land must seriously reflect whether it is not wiser to advocate a policy change now and frame good arguments that lead to a rapprochement. Mind you, "their" boy was not arbitrarily picked out of the blue. He made it into the final shortlist of three candidates, all of them Tulkus. Tibetans highly respect such "runner ups" and refer to them as Panchen ‘os sprul or “Panchen selection Tulku”. Do we have reason to believe that the selection process up to that point was faulty?
I am saying all this because at present, neither the Dalai Lama nor the Panchen Lama can fulfill their roles to improve the Tibetan people's situation. One is accepted but not there. The other is there but not accepted. It is absurd. It should be one office, one Lama, not double this, double that. People are tired of the double staffing that comes with posts of high-ranking Lamas. It creates divisions that hurts us. Instead of finger-pointing, we should make an effort to come to a rapprochement with Beijing and their Panchen Lama so he and the Dalai Lama can start to work together for the wellbeing of the Tibetan people. After all, the Tibet issue is said to be about the six million Tibetans, is it not? Therefore, anyone with an influence on the Dalai Lama should now advise him towards seeking an understanding with the leadership in Beijing so he can return sooner than later.
Concessions are difficult and they hurt our ego. Though the official message is that we accept Chinese rule, I have the impression the Tibetan leadership is happy with the current situation where they manage the refugee community now grown into the third generation and well-established in the countries where they took up residence. Meanwhile the Dalai Lama has also evolved into a global religious figure and so everything seems just fine. But if the Tibetan leadership were to put themselves in the shoes of a person in Tibet, there isn’t the faintest doubt that the Dalai Lama’s place is among his people. There would be so much he could do with his international prestige, not only for the Tibetan people but also for the betterment of China as a whole, were he only to return now.
Of course, Dharamsala is free to insist on its right to determine reincarnations and opt for remaining stuck for another twenty years. Or they can toss dogmatism over board and take a bold step forward. If we are able to get our heads around now and make the difficult decisions, things may gradually start to move. In the medium run, accepting the reality may lead to the opening of the door to talks again, which has remained so closely shut. As for the "real reincarnation" of the Panchen Lama, the whole matter is most unfortunate. But it is to be hoped that his situation too will improve and he can finally begin to lead a normal life, once the reincarnation issue is formally settled with the Dalai Lama throwing his weight behind Beijing's appointee.
Back to The Noodle Maker: Never mind the false modesty implied in the title of the book. In the old days, many Tibetan families in Kalimpong made noodles for a living. Gyalo Thondup, we all know it, is not one of them. In his self-perception he may be a noodle-making country bumpkin from the Amdo backwater. His brother, the Dalai Lama, in his self-perception is a "simple monk" for that matter. But in the external perception of the Tibetan public, it couldn't be more different. As far as Gyalo Thondup is concerned, we think of him as Yabshi Gyalo Thondup, a member of the inner sanctum, the Dalai Lama's family, and a representative of the high nobility. From the point of view of an untitled Tibetan, there is no social class difference whatsoever between Gyalo Thondup and the opportunistic nobles whom he accuses by name of collaborating with the enemy and of many other misdeeds. It so happens that the Tibetan nobility is made up of families into which a Dalai Lama was born. The fact that Gyalo Thondup never had to account for his opaque and yet so dominating role behind the scenes, can be directly linked to his aristocratic Yabshi credentials. As the Dalai Lama's relative, we must concede, the man is a sacred cow.
So while I understand that many are upset over irritating remarks and accusations contained in The Noodle Maker, his story is also a testimony of how weak the exiles' democratic institutions really are with nobody calling for accountability. The judiciary has no punch, the legislative no power and the executive no means. The media shows no interest in investigating his role nor does the public, which remains entangled in a web of rumours, innuendos and interpersonal conflicts. Gyalo Thondup was the man who dealt eye to eye with all the powerful people in China, America, India and also Russia. His mission was to get Tibet independent with the secret help of the Americans. Later, when independence was dropped as the official goal, his task changed to getting the Dalai Lama back to Tibet. That he never received an official mandate from neither the government nor the people is one of the many contradictions in the way we Tibetans conduct our politics. His legacy will inevitably carry an overtone of uncontrolled power, secrecy and intrigue.
Though I did read Gyalo Thondup’s memoirs, I am unable to really assess The Noodle Maker. It contains too many parts on which I cannot throw any light. I tried to present my takeaways and observations instead. I also think we should ask ourselves who else could have handled our national affairs at the time, had Gyalo Thondup not assumed the role. Would we be any better off? If he was that bad, we should have employed someone else, but we didn't. In this regard, The Noodle Maker highlights our deficit in terms of strong leaders who can cope with modern politics and become winners for our people.
The critical issue is for our classe politique to have the courage and break out of its cocoon, overcome decades-long political inertia and finally make a positive impact for the Tibetans. How can we start a new way of thinking without taboos and get talking with the Chinese again? And how can we rear the leaders capable of taking on the challenge? If the Tibet issue is still about the six million Tibetans, then this is the important point to work on.
My father's old friend sighed: "Our task has become very difficult."
The others nodded in agreement.
I felt bad for them and also myself. We really are in a sad situation. If The Noodle Maker shows us one thing then it's that. But in my view, there are still a few chances left to improve our lot. We should not blow them again.
Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet