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May 2007

Refugee Without a Roof


DALAI LAMA: MAN, MONK, MYSTIC by Mayank Chhaya. Doubleday, March 2007. 340 pages. $23.95


DALAI LAMA: MAN, MONK, MYSTIC by Mayank Chhaya. Doubleday, March 2007. 340 pages. $23.95

Tibet is sometimes referred to as "the roof of the world." Squeezed between India and China, this plateau has been rising for millions of years as the Indian plate has pushed up against the Eurasian plate. Inch by inch, Tibet rises imperceptibly out of sight and perhaps out of mind.

While Mayank Chhaya's workmanlike authorized biography of the Dalai Lama can do nothing to slow Tibet's tectonic rise, it does make visible the central role that one monk has played in the up-and-down Tibetan struggle for autonomy from China. Exiled in 1959 from his homeland, the Dalai Lama has sought a nonviolent return to Tibet. But as his role model Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated in the first half of the 20th century, nonviolent resistance requires great patience. Concurrent with his wait-full and mind-full resistance, the Dalai Lama has had to keep the Tibetan way of life alive in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, India, his adopted home away from home: "We also had to preserve centuries of our spiritual knowledge and Tibetan Buddhist teachings. I knew that the Chinese were bent upon erasing our culture and heritage forever. I had to find a way to preserve it in India."

Chhaya successfully interweaves many such quotes from the Dalai Lama to keep the narrative moving and make his subject's humanity accessible. As suggested in the book's subtitle, the Dalai Lama is a man, monk, and mystic. Because of the Tibetan struggle, he has had to be a man very much in the world of politics and governance. With Chhaya focusing primarily on Dalai Lama the man, this 30-chapter book only provides a peripheral glance at the mystic and the monk: there are a couple of introductory chapters on the mystical way in which 4-year-old Lhamo Thondup became the reincarnation of the Buddha; and there is also an intriguing chapter which illuminates the celibate monk's views on human sexuality. But for the most part, this book serves as an insightful primer on the realpolitik of an oppressed people, their oppressors, and the indifferent observers who stand on the sidelines.

With China's powerful ascension, Tibet is of little economic or strategic importance to the United States and other Western nations or India and other Asian countries. It appears that morality in foreign policy has taken a back seat to profitability in a growth market of more than one billion Chinese. As Chhaya suggests, "Short of divine intervention or a catastrophe of staggering proportions China is unlikely to give up Tibet."

This does pose a dilemma. A common man might passively throw up his hands in exasperation or perhaps take up arms in an insurgent battle; and a person given to mysticism might hope for supernatural powers to angrily substitute for the superpower nations' amoral silence. These potential responses to oppression are tinged with a muted hopelessness for the Tibetan people—be they (wo)men, monks, or mystics. In the end, as they look wistfully and wishfully to their lost home at the top of the world, refugees like the Dalai Lama may find succor in the Buddhist aphorism that "one is one's own refuge." n

Rajesh C. Oza is grateful that for all the homes he has left, the leaving was based on choice, and return has always been only a passport and visa away.

Aa is for Aaloo

VARNAMALA GEET by Madhu Aggarwal. DIWALI by Manisha Kumar and Monica Kumar. KHUSHE MAN�O by Sheetal Singhal. www.meeramasi.com

We needed three hands to review the three sets of Hindi language products published by MeeraMasi. In part this was because the diverse products encompass traditional children's books, a helpful Devanagri alphabet chart, and complementary audio CDs. But three hands were also required to give multiple perspectives: native Hindi speaker, non-fluent Hindi speaker, and American-born child.

On the one hand, MeeraMasi uses graphics that feel Indian, while publishing products that exemplify long-lasting American children's books. Varnamala Geet's elegant packaging of a colorful two-sided chart and pocket CD is an example of this excellent hybridization, enabling one to quickly learn Hindi letters and sounds.

On the other hand, there is considerable inconsistency in how the Devanagri script is transliterated into English. Widely accepted rules are not followed; more troubling is the variance in the products themselves. For example, a non-native speaker will not know whether to say the incorrect "ka" or the correct "kaa" in the title of Diwali: Khushiyon Ka Tyohaar. Also, it is unclear why in one title "Bunty" ends with a "y" and "Babli" ends with an "i," and in yet another book the itsy bitsy spider is a Chhot� Mot� Makad�, not a Chhoti Moti Makadi.

On the third hand, in the spirit of a dear aunty, MeeraMasi has lovingly introduced something that is easily lost—language and thus culture—into the lives of those having roots in India. The familiarity of nursery rhymes (Bunty and Babli are Jack and Jill in Indian garb) makes these books a fine first step in language acquisition. Indeed, with globalization giving root to greater connectivity, even a non-Indian professional going to Delhi for a business trip would benefit from listening and repeating the sounds of India's most spoken language. —Anupama R. Oza, Mangla R. Oza, Rajesh C. Oza n

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