Nepal's master storyteller, Kesar Lall, has brought out a new collection of tales, but these ones are anything but folk. The Newar Merchants in Lhasa is a tribute to the traders of the Kathmandu Valley who braved bandits, snow drifts, ice falls and stubborn mules to discover for themselves both the mercantile potential and spiritual dimension of Tibet's mysterious capital.
The compilation is comprised of seven first-hand accounts, varying in detail and length, from men who made the journey to Lhasa and wrote about it. Aside from one, which is adapted from an original in English, all the contributions were previously published in Newari, and it is a tribute to Lall as compiler and translator that he has managed to convey the very different individual styles of the authors. It is often said that the best translations are the ones in which the translator's voice is mute and where the reader would never have guessed that the text has been translated. Lall achieves this, and it is no small task, given that he was faced with rendering cultural, culinary and religious terms into English from the four languages of Nepali, Newari, Sanskrit and Tibetan.
The intermingling of trade and religion is a common thread which weaves through each of the seven accounts, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the first, and longest, story in the book. Entitled In the Footsteps of A Lama, it charts the fortunes of Mahapragya who gained notoriety for being one of the five Buddhist monks arrested in Kathmandu in 1924 and later expelled from the country for refusing to renounce his religious convictions. His voyage takes him through Kyirong, Gyantse, Lhasa, Champaling, Samye and Shigatse, and the reader is left with the feeling that he left no stone unturned and no village unvisited. His eye for descriptive detail together with frequent passages of direct speech make his story a particularly interesting historical document on travelling in Tibet in the late 1920s.
Dharmaloka Mahasthavir's account, A Pilgrim in Tibet, is a touch more anthropological and he makes some thought-provoking, if rather open-ended, comments, such as "travelling can be quite instructive" (page 50). He notes that until the construction of the Kalimpong-Tibet road, Tibetans were reliant on Nepal for their southern trade. Once the road was up and running, Tibetans made their way to places as far afield as Calcutta and began trading themselves. According to Mahasthavir, this meant that "they lost their respect for the Nepalese" (page 50). His conclusion that "religion was rooted deeply in Tibet because the learned lamas made great efforts to explain the texts clearly" will ring true with many practising Buddhists to this day.
A Merchant's Letter to his Wife, by Chittadhar 'Hridaya', is an excerpt from his longer novel Mimmanah Pau written in Newari. This short account has a more personal flavour, particularly his poignant description of leaving his wife ("your tears had stained my white socks", page 65) and being reunited with his father in Lhasa.
An excerpt from the autobiography of Nhuchhe Bahadur Bajracharya is included, under the title of A Tibetan Odyssey, and it makes for good reading. More than the other accounts, it reads easily and has a distinctly light touch. His description of an accident with a mule after a toilet stop could be called comic, were it not for the serious nature of the incident. The episode was clearly memorable enough to warrant the purchase of a horse: "my intense dislike and total distrust of the mule are already well known to all readers" (page 106). The section of his account entitled A Tibetan Home is full of interested cultural observations and demonstrates his keen eye for social documentation. It is comforting to know that the famed Newar business acumen and associated cockiness was alive and well as much 50 years ago as it is now:
"A few Newar businessmen suggested that I join them in their occupation. They told me that they preferred Newars to Tibetans. The latter, in their opinion, were not quite suitable for the purpose." (page 96).
The final three accounts, by Harshamuni Shakya, Manikratna Kansakar and Kuldharma Ratna Kansakar are pleasant travel vignettes but too short for the reader to be drawn into the world of the narrator. The reviewer would have preferred one longer piece, with more descriptive insight, in the place of these three cursory outlines.
Tibet, as we know, is all the rage. Everyone is bleating the word, it is the veritable chorus of the sheep. More intriguing is that the mythical aura surrounding Lhasa has long entranced Newars south of the border, and is not limited to Westerners disenchanted with the capitalist way. In the Preface, Kesar Lall confesses that he too "was fascinated and duly impressed by the lore and legends of Tibet", and his magnificent collection shows us why.