Sky train to Tibet

Sky Train
Canyon Sam
2012, pp 348

Sky Train, a compelling book by Canyon Sam opens to its readers the trauma of Tibet after the Chinese invasion and military takeover in 1959. The book lucidly narrates how Tibet, a once peaceful Buddhist country, is now almost left bereft of its religion and rich culture under a strict communist rule.

Canyon Sam, a third generation Chinese American took a trip to Tibet in the ‘80s, when she interviewed hordes of Tibetans for an authentic oral history of Tibet. But the book never saw light for nearly two decades. Before publishing the book in 2009, the author made yet another visit to Tibet, and this time in the controversial Sky Train that runs from Shanghai to Lhasa in Tibet.

The book is a good mixture of people’s stories and the author’s own experiences in Tibet. Finally, the author retains only four stories for the book, out of the hundreds the author has collected — those that exhaustively cover the times before and after the Chinese takeover of Tibet.

The book begins with Canyon Sam’s journey in the Sky Train and her shock at looking at what modernisation by China has wrought on the once serene landscapes of Tibet — “I kept longing for the pure vistas of the Tibetan plateau.

After hours of looking, I gave up trying to get an unobstructed photograph and instead deliberately took pictures of Chinese footprints: transmission towers, endless lines of electric poles, work camps, storage tanks, and all types of fencing. The scenery was always marred.”

Then comes the part where the interviewees narrate their shocking stories. The first woman Sam interviews, Mrs Palijorkhymsar, was termed a “criminal” by the Chinese government because she was a landlord. While her husband and son escaped to India, she was left behind to bear the wrath of the new rulers. She, along with thousands of Tibetans, was made to work on massive construction projects that the government had started in order to modernise Tibet.

They had to work 16-hour days with bare minimum food. Those termed ‘criminals’ had to work extra hours — as if it was even possible! Then in the evenings came the cruel thamzig sessions. Supposedly a system created for self-criticism, this in reality was simply a torture session for the ones termed criminals. Those who previously worked on the fields were mandated to beat up their employers. Mrs Palijorkhymsar wryly narrates how her employees cried having to beat her and how many women succumbed to the injuries inflicted in thamzigs.

Another interviewee’s — Mrs Nemeselig — story of torture is not much different from that of Palijorkhymsar’s but a bit worse since she was even jailed. Her crime? Her husband took part in anti-China protests and eventually fled the country. Her solitary confinement in jail was in subhuman conditions — a tiny dark room with a few buckets for a toilet, which she was allowed to empty once every three days. After six months of this, she was moved in with other prisoners. But nothing was better there either, she recounts.

They were even forbidden from talking to each even while being in the same cell. If they were caught talking, they would be immersed chest deep in cold water for a day, with no change of clothing allowed later. And she recollects that many died of hypothermia.

One may wonder why the author has only chosen the stories of women. She says the reason was because women suffered the most at the hands of Chinese while their men fled Tibet.

Women could not leave with men because the religious heads, the Lamas and Rinpoches, who every Tibetan agreed needed to be saved first, could not travel with women. But Tibetan women seem to have accepted this ungrudgingly and have gone on with the suffering for close to two decades.

Sky Train is a breezy read despite the grave nature of its topic. The author never dwells on the historical pathos for too long but deftly switches the narrative at all the right moments to a modern-day Tibet. She gives titbits about this tiny land of survivors we would otherwise have never known.

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