Andrew Harvey’s book, an impossible one to classify, is a record of this experience of the stripping away of the dry foliage of the familiar—its universities and books and studies, its complex relationships and exacting demands—till those condi¬tions are created in which ‘the golden wind’ can be revealed. He had felt that these condi¬tions did not exist in the known and crowded landscape of his life—born in Coimbatore, India, he was educated at Sherborne and Oxford, now is a Fellow of All Souls College, teaches in America and writes poetry—and that he needed to find the proper setting for the profound experience that he so intensely desired. Al¬though all through his life there had been hints, small obscure invitations—four photographs of Tibet in a ‘khaki-coloured’ encyclopaedia of his childhood; a trip with his father to Ajanta where the guide noticed the child’s inte¬rest in the painting of the stooped figure of a man hold¬ing a flower and told him it was the Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, and gave him one of the dried flowers placed at its feet by pilgrims; the Khmer head of the Buddha at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; a Chinese painting of a butterfly alighting on a flower at an exhibition of Eastern art to which he felt drawn every afternoon for two weeks—these revelations of another art, another philo¬sophy, moved him so deeply that he was filled with a fear of it and chose not to respond either openly or immediately.
Later, during his travels in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, he was stirred by the reports of other travellers, one of whom told him:
You must go to Ladakh. It will change your life as it changed mine…. Through Ladakh I have come to see everything differently. If you have felt anything in these hours we have been together, any intensity, any truth, think that it was not just from me or from us but from Ladakh too that they came.
Some of them had had the great fortune of seeing Tibet but, since that was no longer possible, they advised him to see whatever remained of Buddhism in Ladakh.
Finally, fortified by a prodi¬gious amount of reading and study (T almost succeeded in killing the lure of Ladakh al-together’) he took his courage in his hands and went. By bus, as they had advised, although not with opium as they had suggested. While travelling to¬wards his goal, he recalled a Claude painting in the Ashmo¬lean of the hunter Ascanius slaying the stag of Sylvia, and its strangely alluring back¬ground of a lake and a sunlit mountain, and decided—
I had been Ascanius or the stag so long, trapped in the turbulence of my life; now the bus was carrying me slowly into the background of the painting, away from the ruined classical temple, the Oxford walks, and the Italian trees, all the complex civilized ironies and melan¬cholies of Europe, towards the silence of the lake, the white light on the mountain.
His first sight of Ladakh con¬vinced him that this was the land towards which he had been making his way all along on a troubled pilgrimage. Seeing the mani stones scatter¬ed on the hillsides and along the streams, the inscriptions on them stood out and it seemed to him that the whole landscape … was speaking that mantra; the small fast yellow stream was speaking it, and the wind, and the yellow flowers scat¬tered in the grass, and the three hawks circling silently above the rocks, and the bus also was speaking it in its wheezing over that wind¬ing road. Everything in the world was linked by the sound of the mantra; every¬thing in the world was creat¬ed from the sound of the mantra. Suddenly, even the long line of mountains ring¬ing us seemed as transparent as breath.
He had set out in search of the silence in which the mantra could be heard, and it spoke to him, as it must to anyone who listens with such atten¬tion, such ardour.
The title of the book is some¬what misleading. Although he does write—marvellously, stunningly—of that drive through the Kashmir mount¬ains into the Ladakh valley, and he does visit and describe the monasteries around Leh—Shey, Hemis, Thikse, Lamayuru—and the book contains vignettes as bright and sharp as crystals about his fellow travellers, pilgrims, Tibetan guides, lamas, the Muslim hotel owner and the clientele of the restaurants Pamposh and Dreamland—his book is by no means the kind of travel book the title leads one to expect. The prose, with the philosophical insights that it conveys, is close to poetry (Harvey has published six volumes of verse and three of translations), the poetry of a mystic, a visionary, for whom the landscape, achingly beauti¬ful and wondrous as it might be, is still a reflection of an even greater beauty, concealed but capable of revealing itself once the mind has been pre¬pared for it, stilled and scoured to an emptiness into which it can come flooding.
Andrew Harvey has been accused of naivete by some English critics who found his perpetually laughing lamas tiresome and thought the philosophy they imparted too simplistic to deserve the term. They appear to have confused Harvey’s guilelessness with gullibility. It is quite true that he does put himself at risk, displaying his tormented and hypersensitive state with a painful candour.
His is not the language of a travel writer; it is the language that mystics used at one time but is seldom heard today. It makes him vulnerable and open to attack, as does his total acceptance of the wisdom and goodness of the lamas and their teaching. This is not to say that he loses his Western viewpoint; he is capable of recording impartially the other point of view. A German who watches the celebrations at Shey with him, says:
What you are watching, my friend is a scene of social oppression. The Rinpoche is the Boss-man, the Ladakhis are his hirelings … How can you sit here in all this medieval rubbish!
He later wonders,
What would the German say reading what I have written? He would say: ‘This man is mad or naive. Has he not seen politicians kiss¬ing babies? Does he not know that incessant smiling benevolence is one of the hoariest tricks of the eccle¬siastical trade? How can he be taken in? The answer I’m afraid is banal: this man is in search of the Good Father and has found him …. The Rinpoche is not only the Good Father, he is also the idealized portrait of the writer himself … the writer has found the perfect way to aggrandize himself, adver¬tise his spirituality.’ None of the German’s objections surprises me. There is some¬thing in all of them. But hearing them in the end I can only laugh …. If the Rinpoche is real, and my joy in him is real, what then?
This shout of joy rings through the silence of rocks and moun¬tains, as naturally as the sound of a stream:
You see and hear water everywhere in Leh. Under all talk, every silence, all slow sensuous watching runs the murmur and flash of water—Surrounded by so much water, the mind itself becomes water, hindered by nothing, abandoned, happy.
It is as if Thuksey Rinpoche had removed the stones, the dark pebbles that had been damming up the poet’s capa-city for joy, and released it so that it could flow. Harvey had feared that this new joy would remove his need to write poetry; a crazy Frenchman, Perec, had warned him:
Salvation is the death of song! Listen carefully…. Don’t be saved! Go on singing! You have to remain, my dear, ill with all the illnesses, sad with all the sadnesses, other¬wise how will you write? Eh? Eh?
The Rinpoche does not ask Harvey to give up poetry; he wants only to give it another direction, to turn it from suffering and irony to compas¬sion and joy. Nor does he res¬train him from leaving; on the contrary, he encourages him to try his faith .in the world, against all the clash and clamour and combat, to streng¬then and renew it. There is a sanity and practicality at the base of such teaching that appeals to the humanistic strain in Harvey, born of the humanism that is at the heart of all Western art and civiliza¬tion. When he leaves, he is certain that the spirituality that he has found in the Himalayas will not cut him off but will help him to redis¬cover the spirituality that once was the inspiration of Western civilization and that he had pined and sickened for with¬out knowing. This does not make Ladakh irrelevant—the landscape is integral to the philosophy he has found there, its mountains and stony fields and running water are an essential part of it, and place, people and philosophy are equally invaluable to his experience and his book.
There is only one reason for reviewing Harvey’s vibrantly poetic book along with Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake, a travel book in the most obvious and conventional sense, and that is sheer irony. Harvey was drawn by Bud¬dhist philosophy to Tibet; it was not possible for him to go there and he had to go to Ladakh instead to find the surviving remnants of Bud¬dhism there. Vikram Seth, on the other hand (incidental¬ly born in the same year, 1952, as Harvey, and also an Oxford graduate), while study¬ing economic demography at Nanjing University in China, decided on an impulse to try and travel to India through Tibet—a seemingly impossi¬ble undertaking, yet one he achieved with surprising ease, due partly to ignorance and partly to goodwill. He actually arrived where Harvey so much wanted to be and could not—in Lhasa, within sight and reach of the Potala—and the irony is that, far from finding spiritual treasure there, what he found were streets with names like Happiness Street and Construction Street filled with mud and scum, trucks roaring down the People’s Road, mangy dogs barking in the night, pilgrims chanting and dancing, people picnicking and gambling, ‘the smell of urine and yak butter and bur¬ning aromatic herbs’.
He is by no means unmoved by the sight of the Potala, from the back of the truck in which he is travelling:
In the late afternoon light it is so beautiful that I can¬not speak at all. I get up to stare at it, holding onto the supports at the back of the truck and looking for¬ward in the direction we are travelling. The hill on which it rests and its own thick, slightly slanting walls, combine to give it a powerful sense of stability; and the white and gold add an almost unreal brilliance to the vast slab that is its structure.
On entering it, with a large mass of people, pilgrims from everywhere in Tibet,
devout and curious, chant¬ing, praying, shoving against each other, spinning prayer wheels, giving offerings to the Buddha, and ladling yak butter from jars into lamps,
he finds the experience ‘both exalting and disturbing’ (rather as Naipaul did the pilgrimage to the ice lingam in Amarnath in An Area of Darkness). Roaming further, he finds other temples and monasteries in ruins—bom¬bed, looted and devastated during the Cultural Revolu¬tion—and is moved to write with sorrow:
They have been left to the nettles and the occasional bright hoopoe; even the peach trees nearby, their small fruit green and dis¬eased, have imbibed the bitterness of the place. Yet even here, painted on the rocks in a rainbow of colour, one can see the ever present Om mani padme hum.
These quotations are sufficient to establish Seth’s sensitivity; that he does not, in spite of it, arrive at any transcendental state during his travels to and through Tibet proves only that he was not on a pilgrimage, not even on a search: he was an observer of the far more common kind, the one armed with a Nikon (although, unusu¬ally, also with a knowledge of Chinese, much travel in both East and West, and a disarm¬ing absence of prejudices). He met and talked to bus drivers and mechanics, customs offici¬als, shopkeepers and hitch¬hikers rather than to lamas and rinpoches; he was inter¬ested in and noted down the minutiae of the everyday and the commonplace.
He writes with the crisp crackle of the best journalism and is able to sum up in a few well-chosen words or lines the essence of a place or people (Lhasa he calls ‘this lively and affecting city’, Kathmandu is ‘vivid, mercenary, religious’ and Tibetan children he finds ‘astute-eyed, smiling, in warm and filthy rags’.) If occasionally he verges on the superficial, he can also take one by surprise with the depth and freshness of his responses, as to the flute seller who stands playing a tune in a Kathmandu court¬yard:
…at once the most universal and particular of sounds. There is no culture that does not have its flute. Each has its specific fingering and compass. It weaves its own associations. Yet to hear any flute is, it seems to me, to be drawn into the com¬monalty of all mankind, to be moved by a music closest in its phrases and sentences to the human voice. Its motive force too is living breath: it too needs to pause and breathe before it can go on.
He creeps out at night to witness the gruesome funeral rites of Tibetans being per¬formed on a rock at the foot of the Sera monastery, stands in awed silence watching the corpses being dismembered, minced, mixed with meal and fed to eagles, and finds offen¬sive the group of Han Chinese onlookers who ‘get closer, with insulting casualness’ and laugh till an enraged Tibetan chases them away, brandishing a human leg and roaring, because—although he admits to feeling queasy when the skulls are smashed with rocks—he remembers, ‘We Hindus also break the skull during the ceremony of cremation.’ He is himself the best proof of his thesis that
to learn about another great culture is to enrich one’s life, to understand one’s own country better, to feel more at home with the world, and indirectly add to that reser¬voir of individual goodwill that may, generations from now, temper the cynical use of national power.
(He is, incidentally, immensely saddened by reading Naipaul’s A Wounded Civilisation)
It is curious, then, that this engaging young writer—the cover photograph shows him, seated cross-legged and laugh-ing in a field of bright green marijuana—with his admir¬able ability to travel lightly equipped and informed but not in any way prejudiced or biased, should sum up his ex¬perience of a venture into a different civilization far less optimistically than Harvey does.
The latter quotes, with evident approval, his friend Charles who says:
The West and East are not finally separated…There are differences, sometimes very radical differences, between East and West. I have spent twelve years exploring and suffering these differences. But I know now that there is a dialogue possible bet¬ween the truths of East and West, a dialogue of extra¬ordinary beauty and com¬plexity. Perhaps from that dialogue, which is only just beginning, will come truth as yet unformed and un-glimpsed by either East or West, truths that may in some way none of us can foresee, fuse the dynamic intuitions and practice of Western philo¬sophy and science and the spiritual insight of the East.
Seth, on the other hand, sees less possibility of a dialogue between, not only the two dis¬parate halves of the world, East and West, but even bet¬ween the two nations of the East, China and India.
The fact that they are part of the same landmass means next to nothing. There is no such thing as an Asian mode of thinking.
He imputes this to the fact that the two countries, despite their contiguity, have had almost no contact in the course of history. Few tra-vellers have made the journey over the Himalayas and not many have made the voyage by sea…In Tibet and South East Asia we find a fusion of two cultures, but the heartlands of the two great culture zones have been almost untouched by each other. The only important exception to this is the spread of Buddhism.
There is no escape to be had from irony.
Anita Desai is the author of Fire on the Mountain and The Clear Light of Day.