Post Cards from an Imaginary Tibet

Imagine history not as an accomplished fact or a formless tendency
but as an occupied space of contingency and desire in which people roam.

— Kathleen Stewart, A Space on the Side of the Road

Above the shifting clutter of my desk sits a perplexing image. An expanse of unearthly blue sky and a stretch of lofty peaks frame a high-altitude plateau. In the foreground, a shallow mountain pool projects pretensions to grandeur as a lonely dirt path winds its way into nowhere.

What is confounding about this particular image is not what it is, but rather what it aspires to be. On first glance, it appears to be a post card from my childhood, a time when I was quite sure that such images could only signify Tibet. But in fact, it is a post card from the borderlands of Argentina, where my parents, an uncle, and over a hundred other Tibetans from around the world have suddenly been transported for a three-month sojourn. This is no ordinary reunion of a diaspora community in exile, however. What makes this gathering surreal is that it has been orchestrated by the engines of Hollywood. And its re-enactment of history will therefore surely reach the minds of untold millions in years to come.

There are in fact two big-budget motion pictures and at least three smaller films currently in production. Gazing at my parents’ illicit snapshots of movie sets, I am struck by the curious implications of this fact. In the Andes mountains, in the deserts of Morrocco, and in other rather unlikely corners of the globe, the magic of Hollywood has re-created a Tibet that now ceases to exist outside of personal memories. The cinematic reproductions of these private testimonies will therefore ensure not only that these remembrances will survive but that they will in fact become public memories, enabling countless viewers themselves to bear witness to this epic story. Given the seductive power of motion pictures, any competing account of this historical moment will, over time, simply fade into the background din. Any other story will surely be overwhelmed by the images played out in the darkened theatres of collective memory. This for Tibetans, I realize with some unease, is at once both a timely coup and an unwitting dilemma.

* * *

On a sweltering summer evening I hear my sister break out into laughter in the next room. Pala, our father, is explaining on the phone that casting people called from Hollywood earlier in the day, asking him to take part in an upcoming film about the adventures of an Austrian mountaineer who spent seven years living in Tibet before the Chinese occupation. This job would require relocating to some corner of South America for several months and functioning in some proximity to someone called “Ba-ra Pet”.

Acha: You told them what?
Pala: That I won’t play an aristocrat or a soldier. I’ll only consider going if I can play a monk or an ordinary person.

Acha: And what did they say?
Pala: They said they’d think about it. I also told them I won’t go without your mother. Three months is a long time.

Only someone familiar with Pala’s peculiar life story and even more peculiar personality can fully appreciate the comic element of this moment. Twenty-five years cloistered away as a Buddhist monk in the East, and twenty-odd more spent as a small-town coffin-maker in the West have produced a self-possessed and self-appointed social critic, secretly proud of his local status as curmudgeonly voice of conscience and general crank at large. That his quiet existence has been disrupted by the beckoning of Tinseltown strikes me as decidedly humorous. I can’t recall the last time he has watched a rented movie in its entirety and the one and only time he ever graced a movie hall was to see Gandhi — and then less to be entertained than as an act of respect. After well over two decades in a land saturated by hype and fantasy, Pala remains not only disinterested, but in many ways serenely oblivious to the rising tide of interest in Tibet among the professionally beautiful and the high-octane world of celebrity.

The matter is finally settled a few weeks later when the casting people call back and agree to take our mother on as an additional extra, but insist on Pala playing an aristocratic cabinet minister. I diplomatically point out to him that, this being a movie and all, his role does not in the least reflect upon his own values or personal politics, and that, besides, when all is said and done, this is a non-speaking part and, if truth be told, he really has rather dubious starpower. No one is surprised when his bravado dissipates and he finally agrees to participate in the film.

This movie, after all, is about a world he once knew of as his only home. The backdrop of towering snow-peaks, the sight of a thousand maroon robes flying in a thousand directions, the other-worldly drone of massive dungchen, the ubiquitous smells of rancid butter and burnt juniper leaves — these, for him, are not signs of the “exotic”, but rather sights, sounds and smells of the intensely familiar. The streets of Lhasa that the film seeks to depict are the streets into which he wandered when he first entered the holy city as a wide-eyed, penniless nineteen year-old monk from the wilds of Kham.

More pressing still is the fact that this film undertakes to recapture the fleeting moments before the most devastating event in modern Tibetan history. The Chinese annexation of Tibet marks the nation’s zero-hour as it violently tears away all time-honored moorings of the past. It leaves Tibetans with a painful legacy of loss and a profound sense of uncertainty about the future. And without a truly popular media or a vital practice creative artistic expression, the vast majority of Tibetans have lacked the cultural resources to deal with the shared trauma publicly and collectively. True, every March 10th, the failed 1959 uprising is dutifully commemorated and, in between those annual gatherings, every other possible pretext is used to stage public protests against the rulers in Beijing. But as these events have become increasingly stage-managed, ritualized and even mechanical, they have lost their power to move and to heal.

Whatever Pala’s initial misgivings about his assigned part in the film, it is clear from the onset that he intends to re-live and re-enact this dramatic period in order that this great human loss — the fall of an ancient civilization — might be known to, and shared with, the world at large. As my parents begin to reorganize their lives to prepare their stay abroad, I suspect that this experience will achieve not only this, but that it will also provide all Tibetans involved with a singular opportunity to revisit and collectively contemplate their own great private loss.

* * *

No bus in sight. As usual, Amala has arrived on foot well before the busloads of other Tibetans have been transported to the movie set. This morning, her companions are two strapping young men, both fixtures on the New York Tibet scene, who at the moment are looking somewhat weary after a good hour of trying to keep up with her. They have done well despite the intensity of the high-altitude sun. They are no more than a hundred yards behind her.

Turning on her heels, Amala switches off her Hindi pop music and settles onto a comfortable perch on the sidelines from where she can take in the improbable scene before her. Looming majestically above the streets of the make-believe Lhasa is an arresting replica of the Potala, the palace of the Dalai Lamas and the ancient seat of the Tibetan government. This is but one of dozens of spectacular sets that filmmakers have recreated in these dusty foothills of the Andes. Everywhere there is a constant buzz of activity, from the army of carpenters to the loud flocks of costume designers and hair specialists. Add to this an extended supporting cast of make-up artists, tailors, painters, hat-makers, cooks, drivers, clapper loaders, miscellaneous advisors, and a sea of assistants, all rushing in and out of squadrons of trailers, communicating in any one of sixteen languages at any given moment — and there is no less than a cosmopolitan city in miniature operating here. And this is even before the flood of Bolivian extras are bused in en masse. The set also hosts a herd of imported yaks, each equipped with its own passport and enough heavily armed security personnel to make a bystander wonder if this miniature metropolis is under martial law. Amala begins this morning like many others by gazing in disbelief a the sheer enormity of this colossal endeavor.

“11 Toronto!”

Many hours have passed and dressing finally begins. Amala rises at the call of her number and makes her way to the appropriate jewellery unit. To her discomfort, the Tibetan women before her are leaving the unit wearing oddly mismatched jewellery. It is now her turn to be similarly adorned. The two handlers, busily chatting to each other in a foreign tongue, first fit Amala with a khawu, an enormous star-shaped pendant common across Tibet. They then attach a thenda, a piece of jewellery peculiar to Amala’s own region. The sole purpose of this long attachment is to secure yet another accessory, the heavier onda. Believing their task to be completed, and still deep in conversation with one another, the handlers motion Amala to leave.

Instead, she remains standing before them and asks, “What about my onda?” I’m sorry?” They seem surprised at the interruption.

“My onda. I have my thenda but no onda. Why I should wear thenda without onda?”

The handlers now appear somewhat annoyed. One of them launches into a polite but firm speech about the appropriate manner in which to wear these particular pieces of traditional jewellery.

Amala is determined. “Reason why we wear thenda is to hold onda,” she continues, “If you don’t give me onda, then I don’t want wear thenda.”

All three are well aware of a nearby box containing a number of available ondas. But the handlers are also determined. This is clearly about something more than how a thenda-onda ensemble was properly worn in Tibet circa 1950. The relevant assistant-director is called in to resolve the issue.

“You see, Tsering, it was not always necessary to wear the onda together with the thenda in Tibet,” gently explains the tall, elegant woman, her eyes widening in apparent sincerity. “It could be done both ways, and my assistants are quite right about what they are saying.”

Thenda without onda? Who tell you this?” Amala is incredulous.

“We have cultural advisors — experts — with whom we consult on every issue. In this case, Rakra Rinpoche.”

“Rakra Rinpoche?” Amala’s incredulity has just increased exponentially, “What he knows? Rinpoche was monk in Tibet. Rinpoche still monk. He never wear jewellery. I wore onda with thenda in Tibet. I still wear sometimes in Canada.”

Tenzin Chodrak, one of the Tibetan-speaking assistant directors, is called in. A nephew of the Dalai Lama and in his early twenties, this animated young man spends most of his time on the set translating and brokering tensions between the Tibetans and the crew.

“Amala! What seems to be the problem?”

Amala proceeds to explain the issue in Tibetan. Perhaps culturally predisposed to defer to age, Tenzin Chodrak nods his head solemnly in agreement and tells her that, nonetheless, it would be easier to resolve the tension with the crew members if the matter were settled with the head costume designer, a man of sufficient import as to be headquartered not in a tent or a trailer, but in the big building itself.

Although this strikes her as a bureaucratic waste of time, Amala is resigned to the inevitability of this peculiar ritual. The struggle over cultural representation begins in the dressing quarters under the tent and ends in the plush office in the big building. It has been this way since the first days on the set when Pala and an elderly monk friend from India discovered many hundreds of ill-made monks’ robes only days before shooting began. At first, indignant claims to authority were made all around. So-and-so had, after all, been to Tibet, and had read such-and-such, and moreover, had even studied Tibetan culture at some prestigious institution. But after the fifty-odd handpicked monks themselves politely made it known that they would not be seen in the eccentric robes, the appointed cultural authorities backed down. Mountains of robes were hastily re-sewn.

Perhaps the most illuminating incident to date was Dumkhang la’s stand-off on the set. Found to be wearing a watch during a routine inspection of extras just prior to shooting, the elderly man was abruptly told to remove it. Perhaps it was their tone of voice, or perhaps he was simply tired of taking orders of any kind on how to be a Tibetan. But whatever the reason, Kungo Dumkhang la would not take off his watch that day. Instead, he steadfastly declared that he had not only been a resident of Lhasa during Heinrich Harrer’s celebrated stay in the city, but that he had in fact owned, at that time, a watch far finer than the one he now wore. So no, thank you, he would not take off his watch today.

Bolstered by the knowledge of these and many other acts of everyday resistance, Amala follows the little band as they trudge resolutely towards the big building.

* * *

My parents’ stories are riddled with ambiguities. Everywhere there are indeterminacies in meaning and things are never quite as they seem. The stark Andean landscapes that recall the mountains of Tibet; the many hundreds of South American Indian extras who slip in and out of Tibetan identities on demand; the re-enactment of the traumatic historical moment itself: everywhere there are both deliberate and inadvertent gaps between signifier and referent. And it is in these gaps that things become, as Kathleen Stewart puts it, a “subject of remembrance and exchange in the constant fits and starts of the effort to unforget.” That is to say, it is in these spaces that meaning can finally overcome the brightly-lit, picture-perfect truths of the signs themselves.

I was at first swept away by the steady stream of dialectical images that kept appearing in these stories. Like for instance the sight of the Bolivian extra caught stealing on the set. It was no secret that the indigenous people brought into play Tibetans in the large epic scenes were making the most of the opportunity to take as much as they could from the set: cameras, sweaters, jackets, even sugar by the coffee machines. One misfortunate fellow had filled the ample pocket of his Tibetan robe with almost a dozen cans of soda. Unexpectedly told to join in the next scene, he waddled as best he could until — in full view of many hundreds of crew members and onlookers — his robe came undone and all the cans rattled noisily to the ground. “Corte!” came the angry director’s call. Both Amala and Pala, each in their own accounts, narrated this anecdote with a mixture of humor and sadness. What was appalling in this moment was not the conduct of the young man, but rather the gross disparities in wealth which gave rise to, perhaps even necessitated, this awkward moment. The disparity was not in itself something unexpected, but the fact that it was suddenly thrust into naked view forced immediate and collective acknowledgement of the abnormality of the apparently normal. Thus, while the Bolivian Indians hurriedly lined their pockets with a few extra tea bags, the director purchased yet another sixty-thousand dollars worth of barbed wire to make his Hollywood star — already surrounded by a veritable garrison of bodyguards — feel a little more secure against his enthusiastic Latin American female following.

Or take, for instance, the image of many hundreds of extras — Tibetans, native Indians, Argentinian Vietnamese and Laotians — swarming around a column of Chinese military vehicles as it enters the make-believe Lhasa. While they have been instructed to show only controlled hostility, they instead weep inconsolably, hurl obscenities in their respective tongues, seize and tear apart the Chinese flag. For the Tibetan participants, it might be reconciled that what is unfolding is not merely a dramatization of a historical moment, but at some psychic level the event itself. But what of the native Indians, the Vietnamese and the Laotians? Amala recalls with some wonder the Vietnamese woman beside her whose tears flowed as abundantly as her own. She remembers the peculiar experience of the two of them standing side by side, crying with equal passion but in their different languages.

In these and countless other disconcerting moments, there is something of the remembered past that collides with the present like a nervous shock. It is, as Adorno discerned, in the enigmatic form of the shock that these images set thinking in motion. In this sense, the incriminating soda cans constitute an instance of Taussig’s doubleness of social being, facilitating glimpses into alternative realities by disclosing “concealed or forgotten connections” through the juxtaposition of images. Just as the poverty of the indigenous peoples recalls the Tibetans’ own past as nameless refugees in a foreign country teeming with dispossession, the moment of impassioned solidarity with the woman from Vietnam remembers that what in essence seems to make the Tibetan story unique is in fact precisely what unites it with much of human experience. These images trouble us and necessarily give us pause. Perhaps our own deliverance from deprivation to material comfort is just as arbitrary as the specter of human oppression is at all times inevitable. By obstinately refusing to fit neatly into the story being grandly narrated, these dialectical images in fact cast doubt upon its very claims to truth.

Stories have since piled up against other stories, each inviting its own set of reflections and contributing to an increasingly disorderly and disorienting picture. Some are poignant, many are humorous, most are interesting for one reason or another. But underlying them all is a subtle but constant sense of unease. For the epic story being told is ultimately not about Tibet or Tibetans but rather about the West and its own utopic desire for redemption. And yet these handpicked Tibetans have traveled many thousands of miles to gather in this strange but familiar place to perform, on command, according to someone else’s imaginings of an “authentic” Tibetan. The daily squabbles over cultural representation therefore constitute merely a re-enactment at the most intimate level of a much larger, more invidious, phenomenon. The Tibetans have not only been instructed on their appropriate attire, conduct and cultural mannerisms, they have even been assigned, as an entire nation and civilization, a very specific role — albeit a rather hallowed one — in the familiar and cherished tale of the heroic quest for completeness.

The typecasting of Tibet as Shangri-La — the sacred space of wisdom and compassion — is nothing new. One of the more subtle, and therefore more instructive, cameo appearances it has made in recent years is in the Star Wars trilogy, a vast epic that single-handedly re-inscribed the story of redemption for an entirely new generation. There, unbeknownst to most of the audience, traces of Tibet are manifested in some of the more memorable characters of the series. The face of Yoda, for example, is modeled on that of Serkong Rinpoche, a highly-venerated and now deceased Tibetan lama. The role of this ancient and enlightened Jedi master clearly called for the face of an ocean of peace and wisdom. George Lucas’ answer to the imposing challenge was to send his artistic minions to the Himalayas where the lama was then residing. Measurements were made, photographs were taken, and — back in California — Yoda was born. Even more astonishing for the unsuspecting Tibetan viewer is the fact that the ewoks — the diminutive furry and facile creatures in Return of the Jedi — speak a rapid-fire highland Tibetan. “Gyokpo sho! (Come quickly!),” they call to each other in their high-pitched voices. Scurrying across the screen with their bows and arrows slung over their shoulders, bravely dodging laser blades from diabolical enemies traveling at supersonic speed, these squatty, squeaking figures evoke at once both sympathy and scorn.

The two competing but interrelated caricatures that these represent are reproduced and developed more fully and directly in Seven Years in Tibet. The locals whom the protagonist encounters on his journey to Lhasa appear to be, by and large, foolish and eerily vacant. This then is set in contrast to the sharp mind and precocious wisdom of the appealing teen-aged Dalai Lama. The implications of these caricatures are disconcerting. The people of the roof of the world are exalted as the guardians of great human wisdom, but owing to their very simplicity, they are, like the brave people of Huxley’s Island, doomed to extinction. We reason that while our dysfunctional world may idealize the sanctity of such a society, by virtue of our very dysfunctionality, their continued existence cannot realistically be sustained. We further rationalize that since their timeless wisdom has now passed on to our own able hands, the demise of Tibetans as a people seems, in some obscene way, to make sense. In this cultural logic, Tibetans represent a true holocaust for the postmodern era — a sacrificial offering that is preordained to end in complete destruction.

Absurdly, this nihilistic view finds some resonance in Tibetan lore itself. There is a well-known prophecy by the greatly revered seventh-century Tantric master, Guru Padmasambhava, that Tibetans are wont to quote: “When iron birds fly and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will scatter like ants and the dharma will spread to the land of the red man.” These uncanny words, passed down through the generations from the dawn of the Buddhist state, elicit even today a sense of both wonder and resignation. The flight of the Tibetan people from their homeland is taken to be a fatal signal of the civilization’s impending end. The collusion of the metaphysical with reason, then, appears to render this fate inexorable.

And what of the remains? In a sense, all Tibetans in the world today — even those living on the Tibetan plateau — are in exile: a homeland that is captured and occupied is no longer one’s own. Both the Tibetans who fled and those who remain behind live in a constant state of contingency, always strangers in a strange land. They occupy a precarious space between the truly living and the finally dead. Like those in the bardo, the intermediate stage between death and rebirth in the Tibetan interpretation of dying, those in exile can hear but cannot be heard, can see but cannot be seen. They are trapped in a silent existence where they are here but never really present because they have been stripped of the means to communicate. I am reminded of this by my father’s irritated comments about the cultural arrogance of the crew members on the movie set. So what if they had personally spent some time in Tibet? Despite his twenty-six years in Canada, he still did not have the audacity to make presumptuous pronouncements about “Canadian culture”. Certainly not in a tone of condescension and most definitely not over protestations to the contrary by “real” Canadians. Twenty-six years is a long time to be a stranger, I thought to myself, a long time to be invisible.

In Argentina, Tibet once again played Savior to the young white hero. But this time, Tibetans themselves were there to participate in the drama. In the process, ordinary Tibetans, like my parents, began to appreciate the appeal of their culture and philosophical traditions to the Western world. They witnessed first-hand the scale and extent of that force. And that, I believe, was a liminal experience that changed them indelibly. Nearly forty years after the fabric of Tibetan society had been violently torn apart, this historical re-enactment threw Tibetans back together in an out-of-the-way place under the most peculiar of circumstances. Time had created chasms between old friends and distant cousins. Arriving in Buenos Aires, my parents felt strangely as if they had returned to the India they had left behind twenty-six years ago, while Tibetans from India marveled at finally having made it to the much-vaunted “West”. Very quickly, however, through their common histories, their networks of friendships and kinships, their incessant gossiping, their nightly gathering over beer and song and, perhaps above all, through their shared trials in resisting the cultural dictates of strangers far more powerful than they, these Tibetans experienced a renewal of communal bonds. Indeed, in the intimacy of this intense experience, they managed not only to bridge some of the gaps to which time had given rise, they also began to create new histories, the contents of which might well in time contribute to the recovery of an unanticipated yet plausible future as a thriving people.

And so, while the cultural brokers of the entertainment industry were busily narrating an epic story that obliquely accepted the predestined fall of the Tibetan nation, a band of Tibetans were quietly staging everyday rebellions that enabled them to resist that very premise. For the movie-makers, history is apparently an accomplished fact, something that can be lifted from the yellowed pages of Alexandra David-Neel and reproduced faithfully by qualified costumers. It is something that can be captured on film and credibly rebuilt, inch by inch, in a radically different time and radically different space. By virtue of its very temporal and spatial alienation from our commonsensical present, the history of the Tibetan people is something that can be conveniently retrieved as a flattened story, something which can then, with considerable self-assurance, be projected onto the movie screen.

But what of the thousands of fragments from the past that fall by the wayside? The truth of these competing stories has a way of challenging our epistemological confidence, compelling us to reconsider our banal conceptions of the past. For Tibetans, history is a dynamic ongoing process: a constant and vital practice of remembering and re-telling. It must surely be alive and contingent because Tibetans themselves are alive and contingent. It is for this reason that just as every subversive act reinforces their integrity as a community, every obstinate voice that breaks the silence gives new life to the possibility of a return from exile.

* * *

It is late September when I watch an advanced screening of what ultimately turns out to be a disappointing cinematic production, even by Hollywood standards. But today is a special screening, and director Jean Jacques-Annaud is explaining to an enraptured audience how he realized one day during the filming that Seven Years in Tibet was really the same film as his previous noted works, The Lover, Quest for Fire, and The Bear. Meaning of course that they all tell the same story: The story of how a troubled protagonist is transformed through the experience of contact with an alien Other.

I slip out into the darkened streets, haunted by the tune of an old step-dance featured in the screening. When I finally look up from my thoughts, I am taken aback by a pristine image of White Tara staring serenely back at me. It is a full-length silk thangka, a Tibetan scroll painting, hanging from a shop window. The shop is called the Himalayan Institute and it offers a “Holistic Health Program: Yoga, Meditation, Relaxation & Breathing, Diet & Nutrition.” Tibet as Lifestyle, as the books showcased in the window attest, promises “Freedom from Stress,” “The Path to Power,” and teachings in “The Art of Joyful Living”. While the paraphernalia in the window are cluttered with mystical Tibetan art and imagery, none of the books bear Tibetan authorship. Traces of Tibet are ubiquitous but the people are nowhere present.

As I continue down the empty street, I recall the prophetic words of the seventh-century Tantric master. Resisting the urge to curse, I strain instead to hear a different ending.


This essay was written in the weeks prior to the release of the film Seven Years in Tibet in 1997.

This scene was cut from the final version of the film.


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