By Tsering Dolkar
Seeing Lhasa is an interesting book. One’s ability to understand or in other words to “see” a place is directly influenced by the authors’ understanding of the place, how they chose to portray it, especially if you are a novice. The effectiveness of authors’ argument also depend to a large extend, to your understanding of the place, your political biases (in this case) and your persuasive skills.
However, any book that analyses “how it was back in the day” needs to be read with an understanding that it is subjective, based on authors’ own political and social standing and may often conflict with your recollection and association of a place and events. Therefore, as a reader it becomes important to be critically aware of such biases and how these may influence the work.
In Seeing Lhasa Harris & Shakya present a historical case to revisit the stereotypical notion of Tibetan society, particularly Lhasa, as a remote untouched Shangrila and/or a primitive form of society. Their depiction of the city is one of a thriving and complex commercial, cultural and political centre ruled by a sophisticated — often indulgent — class of nobility and a strong clergy, reminiscent of many feudal structures. The narrative of past events, role and description of important figures and lifestyles are presented with pictures from that era, which makes a compelling argument to consider the Tibetan society as a complex and highly evolved socio-political system prior to the Chinese occupation. This portrayal of a bustling Lhasa defies the common impression of the city as a ‘forbidden’ and to some extent a puritanical capital in the minds of many people. By doing this serves some important purposes.
Firstly, it curbs the tendency to romanticize or demoralize a place by laying emphasis on its inaccessibility, foreignness, which in effect often alienates the natives’ experiences and creates a sense of emotional detachment from their world and issues.
Secondly, such notions are based on a Eurocentric and colonialist definition of societal development that is measured mostly in terms of its technological advancement. This framework does not do justice to neither the unique context of the region nor does it aptly represent the characteristics and strengths inherent in traditional societies. It is with regards to debunking such popular misrepresentations, and creating a sense of appreciation for a culture that was able to survive and flourish in a harsh environment that Seeing Lhasa makes its mark.
A key highlight of the book is Shakya’s recollection of the city as a child growing up there. The language is intimate, and at times humorous, with a hint of melancholy for a lost past —often reminiscent amongst authors living in exile. In his narrative of street humour, trends, gossip, and other idiosyncrasies of the time, he creates a rich case study-like portrayal of life that not only adds a humanistic appeal to the subject but also strips away the tendency to dehumanize historical figures, time and place, which often characterizes a history text.
His reflections oddly remind you of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Although one is a historical non-fiction and the other a literary fiction based in Africa. In both works there is a strong underlying theme of fear and fascination for modernity in traditional cultures. In today’s world of fast-paced globalization that provokes clashes between cultures and worldviews as much as it brings them closer, Seeing Lhasa continues to be relevant that goes beyond its geographical space.
Writer studied at Tibetan Children’s Village School in Dharamsala, India, and currently lives in Canada.