The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk by Palden Gyatso

tibetan_monkTitle: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk
Author: Palden Gyatso
Genre: Memoir, History(Tibet)
Translated from the Tibetan by Tsering Shakya

Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk, was arrested after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. He was arrested when he was 28 years old and was released in 1992, when he was almost 60. This is his story.

Palden Gyatso joined a Monastery in 1943 at the age of 10 and decided to dedicate his life to religious studies. He recited prayers, learnt the scriptures and generally went about doing what monks usually do. Things started to change around 1950 when China invaded Tibet under the leadership of Mao.

Many Tibetan’s were arrested for minor reasons or for no reason at all. Palden Gyatso was one of them. The Chinese took away land, stopped Tibetan’s from worshipping and started spreading the teachings of Mao, all under the name of reform. They wanted to introduce so called “socialism” and bring everyone to one level. Palden Gyatso suffered a lot in the prison, mainly because he was the son of a rich landlord and therefore someone who enjoyed a lot of privileges in the “old” Tibet. But as far as he could see these were just ways to control Tibet and its people.

Palden Gyatso describes the prison horrors and the atrocities committed by the Chinese. And considering he was transferred many times to various prisons, its obvious this was the state everywhere. Even the slightest mistake could lead to a death sentence. He describes the fear and the helplessness that took hold of every Tibetan during that time. This is one of the many passages that describes this very helplessness:

It was far safer for everyone to forget their loved ones. We all learned to live as though we were orphans, with no parents or brothers or sisters or even friends in the outside world. This was perhaps easier for me as a monk than it was for some other prisoners. I was used to being solitary. I have no strong ties, no memories of a wife or children tugging at my heart. There were many cases of a wives remarrying in order to prove that they had completely severed ties with their reactionary husbands. The Party liked this sort of public declaration.

When he was released, he decided not to stay in Tibet any longer because he feared that the Chinese might not hesitate to put him in prison again. He escaped to Nepal and from there to Dharamshala, India where the revered Dalai Lama had made his home after running away from Tibet. I have been to Dharamshala before and I have seen many monks there, probably some of them were the ones escaped from Tibet. I have also had the privilege of seeing the Dalai Lama but I had no idea how revered and worshipped he was by the Tibetans. I mean I knew but I am just amazed by the scale of it.

FireUnderSnowThe Autobiography of a Tibetan monk was definitely an eye opener. Considering Tibet is so close to India, I should be ashamed that I knew so little about the Tibetan struggle for Independence. Any country does not have the right to rule other countries under any pretext whatsoever. Its high time China realizes that Tibet is a country of the Tibetans and they don’t want the Chinese there.

I have so much respect for Palden Gyatso and so many others like him who have suffered tremendously but still fought against their oppressors. This book is not only an Autobiography of a monk, it’s a tribute and a voice for all those who have suffered and continue to suffer.

Another passage from the book:
The human body can bear immeasurable pain and yet recover. Wounds can heal. But once your spirit is broken, everything falls apart. So we did not allow ourselves to feel dejected. We drew strength from our convictions and, above all, from our belief that we were fighting for justice and for the freedom of our country.

Note: I am assuming the book on the right hand side ‘Fire Under the Snow’ is the same book with a different name. I have googled a little on it and from the excerpts it seems it is.

4.25 out of 5 stars.

Other Informative links on the Tibetan cause:
Final Document of the 2009 Sino-Tibetan Conference ‘Finding Common Ground’
A news article on Palden Gyatso after his release
Free Tibet site

I’m adding this book to the World Citizen Challenge (Memoirs, World Issues, History) and The Orbis Terrarum Challenge (Author: Tibet)

A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal

A Hundred And One Days by Asne Seierstad

Genre: Non-Fiction

Iraq’s deterioration as a nation started in 1980 because of the 8 year Iran-Iraq war started by Saddam Hussein and then the disastrous invasion of Kuwait 2 years after the war. And then there was the 12 years UN sanction.

Asne Seierstad goes on a 10 day visa as a reporter in Baghdad for Scandinavian, German, and the Dutch media. She is there to cover a possible war between Iraq and America. But Iraq is in the clutches of Saddam Hussein and the journalists are not allowed to go anywhere without a minder and without getting written permission from the Ministry of Information, which is like keeping watch on the foreign journalists and what they could possibly leak to the outside world. Saddam Hussein wanted the entire world to know that his people love and respect him and that Iraq has prospered under his regime.

Asne is caught between wanting to write something of value and fearing the wrath of the Iraqi Ministry and being kicked out of the country. And she wants to be there for the scoop and the major stories when war hits.

I am here to find dissidents, a secret uprising, gagged intellectuals, Saddam’s opponents. I am here to point out human rights violations, expose oppression. And I’m reduced to being a tourist.

This book is divided into 3 sections -Before, during and after.
When Asne came to Iraq, she had only 10 days visa and like other journalists she wanted to extend her stay as long as possible. The things she did to extend her visa and also to come back after leaving Iraq once after her Visa expired, was very interesting. You can’t help but admire her persistence.

Iraq’s citizens are preparing for war, some are leaving the country, and some are stocking food and other essential things in case the war lasts longer. As Asne slowly and steadily goes into the heart of the city, she gets snippets of what exactly is beneath the surface. And then one day, the inevitable happens.

At four in the morning Bush’s ultimatum expires. At five-thirty the first bang is heard. I am wide awake, my heart thumping. I sneak out onto the balcony, first crouching in case of missiles, then standing up. Powerful impacts, air-craft noise and vigorous shooting from the Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles can be heard. From the balconies above I hear a Babelesque confusion of voices-Spanish, Arabic, English, French. We all stand staring out into the half-light and see the dim outline of the Presidential palace on the opposite side of the Tigris.

Most of the Iraqi’s secretly want to get rid of Saddam Hussein so in a way they are waiting for the Americans to start a war. Bush had promised to bomb only military sites. So they think they are safe. But once the war starts, things start to get ugly. Hundreds of innocent citizens are killed. The destruction, the mayhem caused is unbelievable. And so is the Bush bashing.

It’s very difficult to stop because I don’t want to give away everything. Can you tell I loved A Hundred and One Days? It read like a thriller. I got insights into how journalists report in war zones. It was fascinating and scary. Asne Seierstad is one brave woman.

Reading this book was like lifting a cloud of doubt and confusion that had settled itself in my mind after watching tons of conflicting news and documentaries over the years about the American Invasion of Iraq and the Saddam Hussein regime.

Its not that I know everything now, but I believe I know every side of the situation and can now watch or read one side of it without being confused or without getting anything else I read about it in the way. Why did some Iraqi’s rejoice and some mourn the defeat of Saddam Hussein? Why were Iraqi’s so against the Americans when they liberated them from a tyrant? You’ll understand all this and more when you read this book. Finally, my heart goes out to thousands of Iraqi people who suffered for years under Saddam Hussein and are still suffering in one way or the other. I really hope peace prevails soon.

4.5 out of 5. Highly Recommended.

Oh by the way, Asne Seierstad is also the author of Bookseller of Kabul.

I am adding this to Orbis Terrarum Challenge. The author is from Norway

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Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah

Title: Saffron Dreams
Author: Shaila Abdullah
Publisher: Modern History Press; 1st edition (January 12, 2009)
Hardcover: 248 pages
Genre: Multicultural fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Arissa is born in an affluent family in Pakistan. She moves to New York when she marries Faizan who works in a restaurant in the World Trade Center. Arissa is very happy with her life, her husband and their future prospects. Also, she is 2 months pregnant. On 11th September 2001, with the attack on the world Trade Center, her whole world came crashing down along with the towers. Faizan is dead and the last rituals are performed without a body, her baby is deformed in her womb and will probably never live a full life. Arissa’s friends and in-laws help her move on. But she is alone and scared, scared of living her life without a companion and scared to raise a child with disabilities.

As Arissa is managing to live life each day, she is confronted with another dilemma, her religion. After 9/11, the way Muslims were viewed changed drastically. The horror of Terrorism reached people who never thought something like this would happen to them. The targets were the innocent Muslims. As Arissa tells someone,

“When you put all your potatoes in a sack, you should know they all have unique flavors. Some are rotten, some fresh. Just because they are clumped together doesn’t make then all the same.”

“They are not my people, but I don’t think you are smart enough to figure that out.”

Saffron Dreams is a journey of a young widow away from her homeland and in a country she has adopted. It’s a delicate subject and a book that handles a lot of sensitive issues without wanting to create a sensation. The writing was so raw and honest that I could feel Arissa’s pain seeping through the pages.

I did struggle through this book as I found it a little difficult to read, I even had tears in my eyes a couple of times, but the author’s simplistic and crisp writing style and Arissa’s struggle to find some hope in her chaotic life kept me reading and rooting for her. In the end, this book is not about 9/11, her husbands death, her child’s disabilities or even her religion. It’s about what binds us together even though we are from different homelands and different cultural backgrounds, which I believe is the crux of this book. Though not easy, it’s definitely something that deserves to be read.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

Why was there no fear in my heart? Probably because there was no more room in my heart for terror. When horror comes face-to-face with you and causes a loved one’s death, fear leaves your heart. In it’s place, merciful God places pain. Throbbing, pulsating, oozing pus, a wound that stays fresh and raw no matter how carefully you treat it. How can you be afraid when you have no one to be fearful for? The safety of your loved ones is what breads fear in your heart. They are the weak links in your life. Unraveled from them, you are fearless. You can dangle by a thread, hang from the rooftop. Bungee jump, skydive, walk a pole, hold your hand over the flame of a candle. Burnt, scalded, crashed, lost, dead, the only loss would be to your own self. Certain things you are not allowed to say or do. Defiant as I am, I say and do them anyway.

How do you end a story that’s not yours? Add another sentence where there is a pause? Infiltrate the story with a comma when really there should have been a period? Punctuate with an exclamation point where a period would have sufficed? What if you kill something breathing and breathe into something the author wanted to eliminate? How do you get inside the mind of a person who isn’t there? Fill the shoes of someone who will never fill his own?

Triumph of Deborah by Eva Etzioni-Havely

Book Title: Triumph of Deborah
Author: Eva Etzioni-HavelyPublisher: Plume (February 26, 2008)
Paperback: 368 pages
Rating: 4.5 /5 stars

I had a sudden urge to read a historical novel this weekend. Since I own only a couple, the choice was easy. I had read a lot of reviews of ‘Triumph of Deborah’ and knew it was generally liked. So I didn’t hesitate to pick it up.

And yes, I liked it. In fact, I loved it. I had absolutely no knowledge about Deborah. So before reading the book I googled a little and found out that she was a highly respected prophet, a judge and a leader of Israel. And the fact that she was a woman and yet respected so much during that era was inspiring.

Okay, let’s jump to the book. Inspire of all her efforts, Deborah is unable to establish peace between the Canaanites and her people. Seeing that she has no choice but to go to war, she decides to appoint Barak as the chief. Barak is very young and inexperienced but she decides to trust him based on his past victories. Barak, although resistant at first, feels like he has no option. He leads Israel to victory against Canaanites.

In the Canaan country, the King gives the responsibility of war to Sisra who also marries his daughter Asherah renowned for her beauty. The King has another daughter Nogah from an Israeli slave and whose knowledge is kept a secret.

When Barak captures the Canaan Castle, he is smitten by Asherah’s beauty, so he takes her as his captive. Nogah accepts a job as a maid in Barak’s mansion. Thus begins a love triangle between Barak, Asherah and Nogah. Barak is smitten by Asherah and Nogah is in love with Barak, but Asherah hates Barak because she thinks he is responsible for her husband Sisra’s death. She waits for an opportunity to kill Barak and make him pay for his deeds.

Deborah, meanwhile, through her prophecies and her visions helps avoid another was between Israel and Canaan. In the end, Deborah, Barak, Asherah and Nogah help in bringing peace to the land.

Deborah is very strong willed and admirable. She is true to her people and is willing to sacrifice her personal life as well. I was surprised that I had never read much about the love triangle in any of the reviews. Considering it takes up more than half of the book, it’s a major part of ‘Triumph of Deborah’. I love romance books so I was in fact happy that there was this angle to it. But I do think some people might be annoyed by the number of chapters dedicated to it. So I just thought of mentioning it here.

I learned a lot about Deborah as a biblical character. The writing style is simple which makes it easier to get engrossed in the story. Although I won’t call it a character driven novel, I felt strongly about all of them; be it Deborah, Nogah, Asherah or Barak. In fact I hated Barak. He was a womanizer and he let his lust overpower all his senses. Nogah, I thought, was a fool for loving a man like Barak. But love has no logic right?

Conclusion: I highly recommend this book. I am definitely going to be on a lookout for Eva Etzioni-Havely’s other books- The Song of Hannah and The Garden of Ruth.

Isn’t this a beautiful trio?


I am adding this book to Orbis Terrarum challenge. The author was born in Vienna, Austria.