Book Review by Malati Mukherjee

First published in the Journal – The Book Review

Author: Dr. Tsewang Yishey Pemba
Niyogi Books 2017
Hard bound, 468 Pages

White Crane Lend me Your Wings is a heartbreaking story set in the idyllic Nyarong valley of Tibet – in the pre and post Chinese occupation years – where people live enchanted lives, with simple needs, simple beliefs and a deep faith that their Gods will never fail them.

Dr. Tsewang Yishey Pemba is Tibet’s first medical practitioner as well as first writer in English. In this, his third novel, posthumously published, he gives us a glimpse into the intimate lives of the Tibetans, their pride, their generosity, their warmth and hospitality, and most of all, their love for the achingly beautiful Nyarong Valley, the land of the Khampa warriors in the Eastern District of Tibet.

Dr. Pemba showcases the Khampas as ‘men and women of magnificent physique, immense courage and great honor.’ The Khampas, about whom a British political office reportedly said, ‘And as regards physical strengths and hardihood, there are few, if any, finer races in the world than some of the tribes of Eastern Tibet.’

He paints a rich and detailed tapestry of the Tibetan way of life. Their dress, their food, their habits, and the strange and gory custom of declaring their bravery, are all exquisitely described. The deep friendship of the two protagonist Khampa warriors, one of whom is an American born and brought up in the Nyarong valley, provides the central theme of the book.

A glimpse is offered into the tranquil monasteries where chantings resound with the hum of the bells. The serene Lamas represent the spirit of Tibet. They are gentle, open and receptive, deeply spiritual and large hearted enough to welcome a team of preachers of an alien religion. Preachers who tell them ‘we have come…for the sole purpose of preaching Christianity and converting every Tibetan … so that no Tibetan … worships any God except our God…’ After wondering at the conviction of the Christian ‘Religious Elders’ the only response of the monk is – ‘…if you should need any help, assistance or guidance in your work let (me) know. You are welcome to preach whatever you wish in our valley…’

The American Christian mission fails but it is not a failure of humanity. The proselytizers become an intimate part of the landscape they came to convert, planning to live out their days in Nyarong, until the threat of the oncoming Chinese invasion forces them to flee. Leaving behind their only son who knows this to be his own country and the Khampas his own people whom he will never desert.

For those of us who do not know the story of Tibet’s occupation by Communist China, Dr. Pemba brings the reality of those times upfront and close. In a world where people across countries are being displaced from their homes and running away to become refugees and live on the streets of unfamiliar lands, White Crane…will find a resonance in the hearts of readers who are either longing for their own homes or watching with horror the plight of displaced others around them.

A gentle people for all their bragging of heroism, the Tibetans who live their lives cut off from the world, find themselves completely unprepared for the Chinese attack when it comes. Although the Chinese have been camping in Tibet for years, yet when the communist army marches across Tibet, it takes everyone by surprise.

The Tibetans look up to their Gods and their Rinpoche’s to deliver them from the rising threat of invasion but ultimately the Gods fail Tibet. The Gods continue to fail them. Tibet lived its idyllic life in a world all its own. Like the primary characters repeatedly say, ‘all we want is for them to leave us alone and let us live our own life. That’s all.’ To revel in the splendor of their valley and live with no harm to anyone. But in the rolling juggernaut of life perhaps that was too much to ask.

The book turns slow paced at times, the characters do not always stand out sharp and clear. But none of that takes away from the fascinating story, simply told, of a nation in turmoil. In the end White Crane is another story of heartbreak and loss; of love and longing; of a displaced people pining for home. The book underlines Dr. Pemba’s own desperate longing for his Motherland, which has been consumed into the Great Chinese Motherland.

The book ends on an open note. The young American son of the missionaries, who has ventured out for help, plans to return to Nyarong. Will he? Will he and his Khampa warrior friends now engaged in guerilla warfare, throw the Chinese out of Tibet? Will the two million Tibetans displaced and forced to become refugees in their neighboring countries, ever be able to return to their land and live life the way they want to? A small dream surely? Will it ever see the light of day? Perhaps.