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Kaushik Barua

Harper Collins

Pages: 390 Rs. 450

Loopholes in the crooked path of least resistance

Kaushik Barua’s novel about the Tibetan armed resistance is a riveting work, lifted by sound historical research as well as psychological acuity, writes Janice Pariat.

Janice Pariat  11th Jan 2014

Majnu Ka Tilla, Delhi: One of the places where Kaushik Barua’s Windhorse is set

n Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley, set during the Irish War of Independence (1919-22), the drama unfolds with a young man's refusal to say his name in English. The British soldiers threaten him, yet he continues speaking Gaelic, and for this effrontery, he's beaten to death. The word is silenced.

Kaushik Barua's debut novel Windhorse, another story of armed resistance against occupation, also opens with the spoken; the story of King Gesar of Ling, a 12th-century oral epic cycle narrated through song and poetry. Lhasang's father enacts it in their home, while outside, in their village, wandering drungpas perform Gesar's feats around a bonfire. Barua holds up this rich fabric of Tibetan life — the unwritten and unspoken, the intangible and effervescent — and shows us, in affecting, immediate prose, how it's rent, ruptured and broken.

Beginning in 1947, and set mainly between Tibet, Delhi, and Nepal, Windhorse follows the intertwining lives of two young protagonists. Lhasang, from the small village of Riwoche, nestled in a quiet valley in eastern Tibet, and Norbu, son of wealthy Tibetan expatriates who live and conduct various entrepreneurial exploits in India. The first section of the book, "Home", is the setting of a stage, a careful building up of background events, a steady tightening of the noose. We watch, almost as incredulous as Lhasang, at the changes taking place in and around Riwoche. The disappearance of children and grown-ups for "re-education", the enslavement of the Tibetan people by the Chinese to build roads and dams, their slow and paralysing deprivation, increasingly terrifying outbursts of violence. What would the future steal from him, asks Lhasang?

As he and his family eventually make the trek across the Himalayan mountains to India, we know that it takes nothing less than his homeland. Meanwhile, we find Norbu studying economics at "one of the best colleges in the country", filled with little more than youthful languor, skills at debating and a keenness to impress girls. Until he meets Dolma, a Tibetan student and social worker, with whom he falls deeply in love. Her words "weren't barbs, [but] hammer and chisel shaping him."

Windhorse is remarkable not just for Barua’s attentive historical research, but the skill with which he imbues it with life. The broad sweep of the narrative is punctured with heart-wrenching accounts of atrocities witnessed and suffered, of familial separations and unimaginable loss.

In "Exile", the book's second section, the lives of refugees, fluid and nomadic, swirl together like tributaries joining a river. Against all odds, in the midst of struggles against exploitative manual jobs, India's manic heat and strange tropical diseases, there is an attempt at rebuilding some semblance of life. Revenge is plotted, bonds and loyalties are formed. Lhasang makes his way to Majnu Ka Tilla, a refugee camp in north Delhi, and urged by Dolma, Norbu also visits the camp, drawn toward the people, their suffering and their stories. Here, he first encounters a ragged army of rebels, for whom "home was the entire nation."

Barua skilfully interweaves their individual histories into a vast and poignant landscape of survival and loss. Thupten, the group leader, once a wealthy trader who lost his only daughter in a revolt in Lhasa; Ratu, a former serf and one of few survivors of the rebel forces quelled by the Chinese; Athar, an ex-monk, who "gave up his prayer wheel for a gun"; Sonam, the musician with the golden voice, for whom "whole villages would wait for hours while he cleared his throat"; Tenzin, son of an affluent Tibetan family who "even as a refugee wore a foreign watch on his wrist." Windhorse follows in the tradition (mostly buoyed by Hollywood films) of unlikely heroes banding together for a long-odds mission. Where despite the camaraderie ("It is us. We are the windhorse now. We have to carry our people, the three jewels, to freedom"), the group is also riddled with conflict and personal clashes. What renders this mission problematic is that at its heart, it's beset by a philosophical and religious quandary: that of acting against the Buddhist law of non-violence. "Can we save the dharma if we ourselves defile it?" A question that repeatedly comes up in political meetings and campfire conversations.

wiftly, the narrative shifts in "The Last Stand" to Nepal, where the rebel army, after a gruelling training stint in the USA, sets up base in the small kingdom of Mustang. This final section bristles with action — ambushes and skirmishes, violent danger and loss of lives – although regrettably at the cost of narrative pace, which tends, at times, to stumble and falter. The unevenness, however, doesn't undermine our empathy for the characters. The mission catapults toward where we always knew it would — great and utter tragedy. (Perhaps the mark of a truly engaging story is knowing how it will end, and yet still reading on.) And we are haunted by Mridula Koshy's words on the cover, that "this is history we are yet living." The struggle, as we know, continues.

Windhorse is remarkable not just for Barua's attentive historical research, but the skill with which he imbues it with life. The broad sweep of the narrative is punctured with heart-wrenching accounts of atrocities witnessed and suffered, of familial separations and unimaginable loss. At the end, what people fight for is much more than an imagined nation. They fight, as Lhasang and Norbu do, for a right to be where their stories are born and laid to rest.

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