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Authors: Dervla Murphy

The Waiting Land

BOOK: The Waiting Land
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The Waiting Land

A Spell in Nepal


To Brian, Daphne, Robin
and Peter with love

My six months among the Tibetans in 1963 had shown me that many refugees do not deserve the haloes with which they have been presented by sentimental fund-raisers in Europe or America. But by the time one has been disillusioned by Tibetans one has also been captivated by them; though unpleasant individuals and events may demolish the idealised version there remains an indestructible respect for the courage, humour and good manners that mark most Tibetan communities.

Before leaving India, early in 1964, I had determined to come back to the Tibetans as soon as possible. However, refugee situations can change quickly and by the spring of 1965 conditions in India had improved so much that nothing really useful remained to be done by an untrained volunteer, and I felt that it would be wrong to inflict on the Tibetans yet another aimless ‘Tib-worshipper’. But then came an item of news from Nepal concerning a recently-formed refugee camp in the Pokhara Valley, where 500 Tibetans were living as family units in 120 tents with only one Western volunteer to help them. It was considered that here I would at least not be in the way, even if my limitations prevented me from achieving much, so on 5 April 1965 I flew from Dublin to London to prepare for the journey to Nepal.

In contrast with my January 1963 departure from Ireland that flight seemed sadly drained of adventure; but my wanderlust revived next day when I went to the Royal Nepalese Embassy to apply for a visa. There I was presented with a leaflet headed ‘A Guide to those who intend to visit Kathmandu, capital of Nepal’, and with a booklet – poorly printed in Kathmandu for the Department of Tourism –
Nepal in a Nutshell
. The leaflet announced with rather touching inaccuracy that, ‘The best months to visit the valley are February-April and September-November. The rest of the months are either very wet or too cold’; but the booklet truthfully claimed that ‘The cold season is pleasant throughout Nepal with bright sunshine and blue skies’ – and at once I warmed to this bewildered country which couldn’t make up its mind how best to sell itself to fussy tourists. Then, reading on, I found a still more endearing statement to the effect that ‘The fascination of Biratnagar lies in its picturesque spots and industrial areas. Biratnagar has some of the largest industrial undertakings in Nepal’. Somehow it is difficult to believe that those travellers who are fascinated by ‘industrial undertakings’ would ever go to Nepal to gratify this particular passion.

On the booklet’s first page Tibet was referred to as ‘the Tibet Region of China’ – a politic ‘siding with the boss’ which would have infuriated me were I not so aware of Nepal’s terror lest she should herself soon become ‘the Nepal Region of China’. Merely to glance at a map of Asia reveals the uncertainty of the kingdom’s future; it is a slender strip of land squeezed between Chinese-controlled Tibet and a decreasingly neutral India, and already a mysteriously-motivated Communist army is arrayed along its northern frontier. Some experts argue that the Central Himalayas are themselves defence enough against any army and that a south-bound Chinese invasion force would always have the good sense to skirt Nepal; but the Nepalese Government has not forgotten how cunningly Tibet was subdued within a decade and at present Nepal’s diplomats and politicians are almost dizzy from their efforts to placate simultaneously both East and West.

On 13 April I spent two very interesting and instructive hours at the Nepalese Embassy’s New Year party.
Nepal in a Nutshell
had informed me that ‘The State was integrated by King Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great in 1769’, but now I began to realise that Nepal’s nationhood is a very artificial thing. For all the tempering influence of a London social function it was soon clear that the various groups to whom I talked represented a basically tribal society which has only recently acquired the ill-fitting political garments of a modern state. The mistrust,
jealousy and dislike of one ethnic and religious group for another showed through repeatedly, and it was interesting to compare the suave, astute Ranas and the ambitious, slightly arrogant Chetris with the inarticulate but gay little Gurungs and the poised, cheerful Sherpas of Tibetan descent. One wonders if there will be time to weld all these dissimilar tribes into a truly united nation before either the Chinese or the Americans annihilate every ancient Nepalese tradition. It seems regrettable that any such welding process should be considered necessary, but perhaps only thus can Nepal hope to preserve her independence.


The flight to Delhi was a mixed experience. We left London Airport at 4.15 p.m. on 21 April and, as always, I resented the slickness of flying and felt too nervous to sleep. As we flew over Erzurum and Tabriz I remembered ‘the old days’, when I had cycled on Roz through that region, and inevitably I experienced an acute sense of anti-climax.

Then came an uncannily beautiful descent to Teheran. At a height of five miles the engines were suddenly switched off and we began to glide soundlessly down, down, down through the darkness; to look out then and feel the silence and see the gigantic length of wing in a faint shimmer of moonlight gave me the fairy-story illusion of being carried along by some monstrous, softly sailing moth.

Here I disembarked – for Auld Lang Syne – and unmistakably I was back in Asia, where air hostesses mix their passenger lists and then fly off their nests in a delightfully unprofessional way. At European airports hostesses are trim machines who rarely muddle anything and scarcely register on a passenger’s mind as fellow-beings: but here they are girls who flush with anxiety and snap angrily at each other because all the passengers bound for New York were very nearly sent to Hong Kong.

When we emerged on to the tarmac two hours later the sky was paling above the mountains and, as we climbed, the stark symmetry of Demavand soared high and proud above hundreds of lesser peaks – a flawless blue cone against a backdrop of orange cloud; and
immediately beyond stretched the Caspian, its metallic flatness oddly surprising at the base of the mountains.

One has to admit that just occasionally flying provides beauty of a quality otherwise unattainable. Below us now a scattered school of porpoise-shaped cloudlets lay motionless and colourless in the void; and down on that plain which Roz and I had traversed en route to Meshed several tiny lakes were looking weirdly like pools of blood as they reflected the pre-sunrise flare. We had regained our normal cruising altitude when a crimson ball appeared so suddenly above the horizon that it seemed to have been flung over the earth’s rim by an invisible hand – and momentarily I was too taken aback to recognise this object as the sun. Then it climbed – so rapidly that one could
it moving – until the sky above the horizon was pale blue, shading off, because of our altitude, to an extraordinary navy blue at the zenith.

We soon turned south, and now the Great Desert below us was covered in cloud so that one looked down on a limitless expanse of grotesque white softness, in which were visible broad ‘valleys’ and narrow ‘gorges’ and ‘mountains’ that threw shadows as real mountains would in early sunshine – the whole ‘landscape’ exquisitely distorted and eerily immobile, as though all that vapour were frozen solid.

At 5.45 a.m. we touched down at Palam Airport. In a desperate effort to retain some grip on reality I had kept my watch at Greenwich Mean Time, but now I put it on to 10.15 a.m., before staggering out into the dusty glare. Luckily the day was ‘cool’ (only eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit in the shade) though coming from forty-four degrees in London I can’t say it felt particularly cool to me.

As the rickety old airport bus rattled and blared its way along the narrow road to New Delhi I was conscious of an extraordinary sense of peace. When we were approaching Connaught Circus, through the usual tangle of loaded cyclists, ambling buffaloes, sleek cars, lean pedestrians and bouncing, Sikh-driven ‘chuff-chuffs’, I tried to define what I was feeling – but could only think of it as the peace of poverty. People may jeer at this phrase as romantic nonsense, yet to arrive suddenly in India after a fortnight’s immersion in an affluent society does induce a strong sense of liberation from some intangible but
threatening power. One is aware of man being free here, at the deepest level, as he cannot possibly be in societies where elaborately contrived pressures daily create new, false ‘needs’, and wither his delight in small and simple joys.


At Dharamsala, where I had previously worked in the Tibetan Refugee Nursery, it was a joy to see how enormously conditions had improved since my departure. Pema Janzum, the younger sister of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is now running the camp, and her intelligence, common sense and flair for leadership have transformed the place from a squalid, disease-ridden inferno to a model nursery full of bouncing, rosy-cheeked Tiblets.

Since 1961 the Dalai Lama himself has been living in a heavily guarded bungalow quite close to the Nursery. His residence is usually given the courtesy title of ‘Palace’, though in fact it is far from being palatial – which no doubt pleases its simple occupant, even if the refugees are saddened to see ‘Yishy Norbu’ living at such a remove from the splendours of the Potala.

On the morning after my arrival His Holiness generously consented to receive me in audience and I found the change in him scarcely less remarkable than the change in the camp. During my first audience, sixteen months earlier, he had given me the impression of being a little unsure of himself and remaining rather on his guard against foreign observers; but now he seemed much more confident and relaxed, and this meeting felt less like an audience than a discussion between two people with an absorbing mutual interest. Our conversation centred on the problems of the refugees in Nepal, where the political difficulties of the host country create many special complications, and as we talked I realised that it would be impossible for me to enter in my diary and send through the post any detailed accounts of our work at Pokhara Camp. In this sort of situation what may appear to be minutiae can on occasions have the most disconcerting significance.


After two happy days at Dharamsala I went on to Mussoorie – a sixteen-hour journey by bus, train, bus and finally a shared taxi from
Dehra Dun. On leaving the taxi at the edge of the town the first person I saw was Jigme Taring, a Tibetan-Sikkimese prince who runs the co-educational six-hundred-pupil Tibetan school and prefers to be known as a ‘Mister’. During my previous visit to Mussoorie he had been away in Sikkim, but though we had never met we simultaneously recognised each other and drove together to Happy Valley, the appropriately-named centre of the local Tibetan community.

For all his illustrious ancestry Jigme Sumchan Wang-po Namgyal Taring is a typical Tibetan – simple and gentle, with a keen intelligence and a tremendous sense of humour. He and Mrs Taring, who runs the Tibetan Homes Foundation, illustrate the best side of feudalism; they feel that the thousands of peasants in exile are partly their responsibility – a logical view, though one that is uncommon among rich Tibetan exiles.

The Tarings’ Lhasa residence was near the Potala and during the shelling of the Palace, in March 1959, it too was partially demolished. Their first-hand account of the Lhasa Insurrection interested me greatly because, on reading the Gelders’ book,
The Timely Rain
, it had seemed to me that among the authors’ few plausible arguments was one supporting the Chinese claim that the Potala had
been heavily shelled. Yet Mr Taring, who was then C-in-C of the Tibetan Army, has a cine-film of the actual shelling, taken by himself before he left the capital. As Mrs Taring quietly pointed out, he had obtained this film at the risk of his life, realising how effectively it could counteract Chinese propaganda and foreseeing its future historical value.

When His Holiness left the Summer Palace on 17 March Mr Taring remained behind for two days, to help delude the Chinese into believing that the Dalai Lama was still there. Then he set out on foot for the Indian frontier with one companion – the Tarings’ present cook. Meanwhile Mrs Taring had fled on horseback, also with one manservant, and months passed before either knew that the other was safe.

It is significant that both Tarings unquestioningly followed His Holiness into exile, making no attempt to rescue their children and
grandchildren. On first hearing their escape story, two years ago, I was privately a little shocked by this ‘desertion’, since in similar circumstances most Europeans would choose to stand by their nearest and dearest. Yet after several hours’ conversation with the Tarings one realises that to them His Holiness is their ‘nearest and dearest’ – not as an individual, but as the living vessel containing the Spirit of Chenrezig. Therefore their sacrifice of family loyalties to his needs was a form of religious martyrdom; they each knew that in exile he would require guidance from those few Tibetans who have received a Western education but who still retain a religious faith as strong as that of the simplest peasant.

The most remarkable characteristic of Tibetan Buddhists is their freedom from bitterness against the Chinese. Despite the emotional scars discernible beneath the Tarings’ courageous good humour neither shows the faintest flicker of hatred or anger when discussing the past; indeed they shrink from such reactions on the part of less spiritually disciplined Westerners like myself, who in this context cannot help but utter some impulsive condemnations. The manner in which most Tibetans distinguish between wrong actions and the individuals performing them – with whom they seem to sympathise as fellow-victims of Evil – made me uneasily aware of the immaturity of our susceptibility to petty propaganda.

In Mussoorie the Tarings occupy one large room, partitioned by a curtain into bedroom and living-room, which is rather less comfortable than many of the Homes run by Mrs Taring for Tiblets. The rest of this house accommodates some of the teaching staff, plus seventy-two small children. After we had gone to bed one of the children began to cry and at once Mr Taring hurried to investigate; he and Mrs Taring take it in turns to do ‘night duty’ in addition to working at least twelve hours a day seven days a week. My own room was a tiny cubbyhole, containing nothing but a charpoy, and it soothed me to observe such unusually austere standards being upheld by workers among the refugees.

BOOK: The Waiting Land
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