Around 1950, when India had just started the process of building up after getting free from the throes of foreign occupation, a remote Himalayan country up north, Tibet, that had enjoyed freedom for almost all its history owing to it being ensconced high in the upper Himalayas, was just starting the long and painful journey of colonisation (and later exile) by the hands of the new Communist power in the Chinese disguised as “liberation” of the country from the “imperialists.”
Freedom in Exile is the story of the Dalai Lama as told by himself (like any other autobiography professes to), but the life-story of the leader of a nation inevitably, at least partly, ends up being the story of an entire people. And that’s what Freedom in Exile really is – an account of the tribulations inflicted on the Tibetans and their pursuit for survival in an unfamiliar, adopted country. Except for the first few pages, where Dalai Lama touches upon his childhood briefly, everything else in the book concerns the fate of his country and countrymen.
Dalai Lama kicks off the narrative by telling the readers that the days when he was a child and newly declared 14th Dalai Lama were his happiest. The pomp, the ceremony and the opulence that comes with being a Dalai Lama were irresistible for a wide-eyed kid who had grown up in an impoverished village and had never seen a city like Lhasa. He then switches back to his early childhood, describing his days in a remote village in the northeastern province of Amdo. The picture of Tibet that Dalai Lama paints is of an idyllic country with relaxed lifestyle almost totally untouched by modern technology and science. If you think that is such a bad thing, this book might force you to rethink. There were no doctors, only physicians trained in traditional medicine. The people, who had been quite warlike before Buddhism penetrated their beliefs, were deeply religious and peaceful.
That was before Mao Zedong, though. When the Communist leader’s soldiers invaded Tibet, ostensibly to liberate the people, Tibet had no standing army to speak of and whatever fighters who could be mobilised in an emergency were ill-equipped and had little to no training. The powerful Chinese army made quick work of any resistance it came across and Dalai Lama had to flee.
The most remarkable thing about Dalai Lama that emerges from this book is his utter lack of ill-will towards the Chinese in spite of what they did to him and his people. Sometimes, there are hints of bitterness, if you are careful enough to read between the lines, but Dalai Lama still seems like a resurrected Buddha if he is honest about even half of what he has written. Similarly, surprising is his lack of any resentment towards Nehru and other Indian leaders and diplomats who had been indecisive when confronted with the Tibet problem. On one hand, they had poor and hungry Tibetan refugees and their determined young leader and on the other, millions of their own impoverished and homeless countrymen. Adding to the problem were the Chinese who would certainly take offence if Indians so much as appeared to help the Tibetans. As it turned out, this was one of the prime factors because of which China invaded India in late 1962.
Descriptions are clear and vivid throughout and the writing is simple and crisp. Sentence structure is not complex, which I’ve come to associate solely with autobiographies lately. That probably has to do with limited English capabilities of His Holiness, and the book is an incredibly quick read. Don’t mistake me – Dalai Lama is no Chetan Bhagat. The writing is actually good and even quite evocatively beautiful at times. There are detailed passages which describe eloquently the pain and suffering borne by Tibetans and their longing for their homeland. That is when the Dalai Lama can’t resist blaming the Chinese for his people’s travails and you realise that he is a mortal like us. An enlightened mortal, but a mortal nonetheless. He is also brutally honest about his country’s failings. He frankly admits that Tibet was far from perfect before the Chinese crossed into its borders. There were corruption and deadly power-struggles in the government, people were poor and unaware of the outside world. Tibetans, he says, paid the price of being oblivious of, and unaffected by, the outside world.
The best part of the book for me came when Dalai Lama describes the culture and art forms of Tibet. It is hard to miss the genuine excitement and pride in his narrative when he explains the rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and art of his country. There is a sort of childlike humour here and you can picture a jaded old man looking wistfully outside the window of his room, his gaze locked at the snow-capped mountains of Dharamshala, teary-eyed, yet smiling at the slightly faded memories of a lost homeland.