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 underwent from the 1930’s to the years 1945-1949, of the Peoples’ revolution in China. It shows how what has evolved over the centuries can be demolished permanently in one stroke by introducing what at the time of its introduction may seem to be quite an insignificant change.
The illiterate idiot son of a powerful Maichi chieftain narrates the story from his deathbed. Because of his expressionless face, unusual mannerism, uncouth and unpredictable behaviour the world considers him stupid. But he knows that an idiot has an eye for the basic truths. He categorically states, “I could see everything, and not just of today, but everything of tomorrow as well”; “I was neither an idiot nor a smart person. I was just a passerby who came to the wonderous land when the chieftain system was nearing an end”. Because of his prophetic thoughts and actions which have long ranging effects at times and erratic behaviour at other times people around him wonder whether he is genuinely an idiot or a clever person. He has a half brother from Maichi chieftain’s first wife. His mother is a Chinese Han woman who was a prostitute. She was sent to the Chieftain for fulfilling his carnal desires. But as she conceived, and the first wife died, she was formally accepted as the second wife of the Chieftain and the son born was recognized as the second son of the chieftain. She enjoys her life as an aristocrat and is loyal to the Chieftain. The elder son loves the good things of life. He is ‘smart’, that is a normal person, and is also adept in warfare. He is strong headed like his father. As per the prevalent practice he is destined to be the heir to the Maichi estate.
The placid life in the Maichi estate in particular and the other estates in general is disturbed when the Maichi chieftain grows opium in his land instead of the traditional crop of barley. He does so on the advice of the Han Chinese military official who had come to settle the territorial dispute between the Maichi estate and its neighbouring estate. The crop of opium brings high returns. With the additional income that it yields the Maichi Chieftain agrees to buy modern equipment of war on the advice of the same Han official. The inter estate balance of power is further disturbed when after a few years the chieftains of other estates imitating the Maichi estate start growing opium in their lands and completely ignore growing their staple diet of barley. But the Maichi chieftain reverts to growing barley instead of opium in his land. As a result, while there is plenty of foods in the Maichi estate, the other estates suffer a famine and their subjects die of hunger.
The idiot son who is sent by the Maichi Chieftain to the southern border is assigned the task of negotiating the price of barley with the chieftains of the famine struck estates. He humbles them through his erratic behaviour and is able to extract a price which is more than ten times the normal price of barley. He also manages to successfully negotiate with a lady chieftain to marry her beautiful daughter to him. He successfully opens a market in the southern region and collects taxes from the vendors and the buyers. The only known way of creating wealth until that time was through war. This is the first time a new way of earning comes to be known to the chieftains. This adds to the wealth of the Maichi family which now becomes the wealthiest and the most powerful. With the developed marketplace comes prosperity to the region. However, it also brings with it the evils attached to it – the evils from which the region was hitherto immune. In the end the Red army takes over the whole region and the chieftain system comes to an end, never to return.
The novel is an exemplar of subaltern studies. This almost flawless novel besides having literary merit gives one a peep into an era now lost forever. The storyline is as taut as it can get. The narrative grips the reader. Alai with his sympathetic understanding is successful in creating a synthesis between fantasy and probability, between caricature and portrayal of a cruel and inequitable system. The narrative is so powerful that each of the characters comes alive in the reader’s mind. One is anxious to know the next move of the idiot which often is contradictory to one’s expectations, and that keeps the suspense going and makes the novel hard to put down. The translation has such a poetic quality about it that one does not feel that he is not reading the original.
Ashok Vohra is Professor of Philosophy in the University of Delhi, Delhi.