Jonathan Mirsky

Little brother’s helper

Gyalo Thondup, brother of the Dalai Lama, recalls in detail his many years directing Tibet’s foreign policy. But can we believe him?, asks Jonathan Mirsky

Little brother’s helper
Text settings

The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong

Gyalo Thondup and Anne F. Thurston

Rider, pp. 353, £

Can there ever have been another book in which one of the authors (Anne Thurston in this case) so effectively pulls the rug out from under the other?

Of course Gyalo Thondup is entitled to tell his story, beginning with his life as a boy in a small town near the Tibet-China border where, in 1937, his younger brother was identified as the 14th Dalai Lama. He recalls everything from then on without a shadow of doubt: his family’s long overland trip to Lhasa, their transformed, luxurious life there, his trips to China, India, Taiwan and Hong Kong, learning Chinese and about China, and marrying a Chinese woman. He further describes being wooed by governments and intelligence agencies — having been entrusted by the Dalai Lama with foreign affairs — as well as his contacts with Nehru, Chiang Kai-shek and Deng Xiaoping. Perhaps of greatest interest to Tibet-watchers is his account of his early involvement with the CIA, and the agency’s encouragement, sponsorship and eventual abandonment of anti-Chinese resistance inside Tibet.

The narrative shifts from one country to another as Thondup bargains, argues and makes deals about Tibet’s fate, occasionally seeking approval from the Dalai Lama. He moves, also, from hope to disillusion, as he is wooed, coaxed, tempted and invariably let down. He never misses an opportunity to blast the Tibetan upper class for its naivety, corruption and blindness to the realities. Finally, giving up, he moves with his wife to Kalimpong and settles down to noodle-making — thus giving the book its faux-modest title.

If one wishes to understand Gyalo Thondup’s story, the central dilemma, Thurston seems to be saying, is OK, this is his version, there are other more believable Tibetans — she gives their names, especially one who is ‘a man of exceptional integrity’ — but my job here is to write what Thondup tells me. She mentions Rashomon, the Japanese film in which different actors recall an event in different ways. I trust Thurston. One of her great triumphs was to get Li Zhisui, Mao Zedong’s doctor, to tell her what the Chairman was like behind the scenes, including his taste for underage girls, from one of whom he caught venereal disease.

The great test of Thondup’s reliability is his handling of the CIA’s involvement with Tibet. Most authorities agree that throughout the 1950s Washington had in mind and at heart the destabilisation of communist China; but when Nixon and Kissinger decided to open up to China, there was no longer encouragement for the resistance movement. Ever since, world leaders have kept the Dalai Lama at some distance, while insisting that he is a great religious figure.

Near the end of this book Thondup admits that dealing with the CIA was the greatest mistake of his tumultuous life. But he insists that the Dalai Lama was not aware of the CIA’s Tibetan operation at the time— or almost not, or almost certainly not. In fact, the Dalai Lama has admitted on several occasions, including to the leading Tibetanist Melvyn Goldstein, and even to me, that he knew of the American connection even before his escape to India in 1959, and has made plain that he regarded it as ‘harmful’. His one proviso was:

They [the resistance] eventually cleared southern Tibet of the Chinese. They did this with CIA help. Without the CIA they couldn’t have done that clearing, and without the clearing I wouldn’t have been able to escape from Lhasa across the mountains into India. And if I hadn’t escaped from Tibet, the situation there would have been even worse.

So why not just skip this book? Because Thondup has met and interacted with some of Asia’s most significant leaders, and his impressions make them come alive, although we should we keep our credibility detectors well-charged. He will win few friends among supporters of the Tibetan cause by saying:

I think we Tibetans need to make more of an effort to understand the Chinese mentality. If we do not, we will always be going to have trouble. We get ourselves in unnecessary trouble by doing things our way without regard to the other side.

I think he is wrong there. The Dalai Lama, for example, no longer insists that Tibet must be independent. But Thondup is correct to contend that historically Tibet has never been a Chinese possession — except, of course, since the invasion of 1950.

In the end, Thondup feels betrayed by almost everyone, from Taipei to New Delhi to Washington. But still this intriguing noodle-maker maintains: ‘Whatever happens, we Tibetans have begun our struggle for freedom and independence. That struggle will not die.’

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.50 Tel: 08430 600033