Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Heinrich Harrer : Seven Years in Tibet

Tibetan independence has been a politically sensitive subject ever since this book was first published in 1952.

What's good about Harrer's narrative is that he focuses on just what he's seen - both the good and the bad of the Tibetan monarchy.

But there's no disputing that he had joined the Nazi party -- so it's not surprising that the trappings of absolute authority appealed to him, especially when it coincided with his personal benefit - and one can note - that this appears to be what most concerns the author. He wants to have a good time -- which for him at that time, meant adventure - climbing new peaks and seeing new things. He appears to have had no connections with anyone back in Germany - it's as if he were an orphan with no siblings.

This story ends when Harrer fled the country after the Chinese invasion in 1951 (no fun in sticking around with a lame-duck regime)-- so there's no discussion of the consequences of Chinese rule - except in a postscript that accuses them of genocide.

But the glimpses of Tibetan rule in the late 1940's do not especially flatter that regime, even if Harrer was quite happily surprised about his quick rise at court to become a personal friend of the teenage Dalai Lama.

Tibet was ruled by an aristocracy of 200 families and the abbots of the major monasteries - and this system seemed to have had little concern for welfare of the rest of the population - which Harrer shows living on the edge of starvation, with minimal infrastructure (nothing more than footpaths) and at the mercy of bandits.

And despite their deliberate isolationism, they seemed to have had no problem with obtaining and using whatever products of modern civilization pleased them.

After the disintegration of the Chinese state in the warlord era of the early 20th C., Tibet enjoyed a 40 year window of autonomy within which the ruling class might have attempted to adapt its country to the modern world, as say, the Japanese had done during the Meiji era. Instead -- they sought nothing more than personal advantage and were utterly alone and helpless when the People's Liberation Army began to mass at the border.

Assuming that the protective deities were in control of the situation - it's not too farfetched to imagine that they may have decided to let that theocratic state with its 6000 monasteries pass into history. As Herrer describes them, none of the top clerics seemed all that enlightened, and the lower orders of monks were like gangs of hoodlums.

One item of interest is Harrer's report on the coup attempted by the 7th Rimpoche. Did he really mail a bomb to the monk who succeeded him as regent? In this kind of closed society, the only reports are rumors - so who knows what really happened.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


It's hard not to like Babur - unless you happened to be living anywhere in the 600 miles between Kabul and Delhi back when he was sacking cities and demanding tribute.

Born into a family of warlords -- a direct descendent of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane - he started at the bottom, and beating all his uncles, fought his way up.

The Tony Soprano of his day.

Which would make him just one more menace to civilization - except that he was so civilized.

Kind of.

He wanted to be a gentleman - gentlemen appreciated poetry - so Babur did as well. Not that he ever records patronizing a good poet the way he did good wrestlers -- but as he records the virtues and vices of each of his fellow warlords and henchmen, the knack for poetry is one of the former. (along with religious observance, skill with weapons, and courage in battle)

And he had a fascination with geometric gardens with stone watercourses, and seems to have built quite a few as his army scoured the land stamping out resistance.

Of course, he also had a fascination with drinking parties -- and he's quite ambivalent about it.

Binging vs abstinence seems to have been a major drama in his personal life --- so he seems to record every wild party -- as well as his initial reluctance to get drunk and his eventual oath to stay sober - which coincided with preparations for the greatest battle of his career, Khanwa in 1526, five years before his death.

At that battle, Babur defeated a much larger army, led by an experienced Rajput warlord --
by using the new technology of cannons and matchlock rifles -- as well as the old technology of bribery/subversion.

And what is typically charming of Babur's narrative -- is that while moving his army towards the confrontation -- he meticulously records every party, every new garden, and all the details of personal health - the fevers, boils, earaches etc that accompany a man with a very hard, outdoor lifestyle - as well as the drugs that he took. Mercury for constipation (ouch) - opium for pain - and a candy version of marajuana for just about everything. (Babur was a pot head)

Babur had known defeat many times in the past -- indeed his invasion of Hindustan was ultimately the consequence of being driven of his home territory by the unbeatable Uzbeks.

But somehow, at the age of 43, he knew that this battle was going to be a tough one -- which called for the extreme remedy of forsaking alcohol and declaring a holy war against the infidel.

Up to this point, most his opponents had been fellow Muslims -- and it was Muslim heads that he stacked up in towers after each victory.

But the Rajputs were infidels -- so Babur stirred up his troops (outnumbered 10:1) with a fiery speech filled with quotations from the Koran -- which conveniently provided quite a few admonitions to bring death to unbelievers ( as it had been well serving the nomadic plunderers of civilization for the previous 900 years)

One of the many charms of this journal is Babur's curiosity about the natural world - the flora and the fauna of territories that he conquered - especially Hindustan where everything was unfamiliar to him. What fun to hunt rhino!

But more than that -- Babur was especially interested in people -- because it's the job of a leader to know his servants, alllies, and adversaries.

When to reward - when to threaten - when to forgive - when to punish.

These are all very delicate decisions -- and obviously Babur became very good at them. I can't recall a single instance of his condemning any of his peers to death (although the cook who poisoned him got skinned alive). Usually, the offending aristocrat was forgiven after someone else had pleaded for mercy on their behalf.

But was Babur really being candid?

One topic he seems to ignore is sexuality.

As a young man, he records that his mother had to bully him into visiting his young wife. The only romance that Babur recorded was his infatuation with an even younger man, which inspired a few lines of love poetry.

The introduction to this translation, written by Salman Rushdie, claims that Babur was profligate. But the Baburnama is silent. Lots of stories about drinking wine and eating majun - but nothing about sex and/or romance. Some of his colleagues are noted, in a derogative fashion, as catamites - but nothing about his own sexuality - for which there would have been endless opportunity.

Perhaps this was just a topic which a gentleman would not discuss.

My favorite episodes were when Babur was in big trouble -- like when he was running for his life, abandoned by his comrades after a defeat - and paranoid that anyone who recognized him would turn him in for a reward.

Or.... like when he had outworn his welcome in Herat and had decided to cross the mountains to get to Kabul in mid-winter. Bad idea! As he is caught in a winter storm, gets frostbit, and finally finds shelter in a large cave.

Babur is a babbler -- if he were alive today -- he'd be a serial-blogger like myself.

And also, like myself, he may have been totally honest -- but he also does not want to write about the most important decisions in his life - which, in his case, would have concerned geo-political strategy and how he feels about his rather murderous family.