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Not a Noodle Maker

The Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalo Thondup’s memoirs make for a riveting read

By Ghazala Wahab

Book review So long as you believe, your cause can never be lost, no matter how many generations it takes. The recently released memoirs of Gyalo Thondup, 14th Dalai Lama’s elder brother, adviser and emissary at large, iterates this timeless belief; urging not only those who know him but also those who will know him now through this well-remembered and well-written book (in collaboration with American writer Anne Thurston) recounting his secretive and not-so-secretive role in the Tibetan struggle, to keep the faith.

His last line poignantly reads: ‘I still believe that eventually the truth will prevail, that justice will be done, that Tibet will survive, and that we Tibetans will return home together.’

Of the Dalai Lama’ four brothers, Gyalo Thondup is the only one who did not become a monk. Rather, from the time Lhamo Thondup was discovered as the 14th Dalai Lama, Gyalo Thondup was chosen to be groomed as his closest political advisor. Hence, just as religious education began for Lhamo, Gyalo was picked up for secular education. The then Tibetan head of the state, Reting Regent, who was to oversee political affairs of the land till the Dalai Lama came of age, held China as Tibet’s closest and most important neighbour. Hence, in order to facilitate better future relationship between the two countries, he convinced Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek to sponsor Thondup’s education in China.

Just about in his mid-teens, Thondup was packed away to Nanjing in 1945, the capital of Kyomintang China where he lived in luxury at the expense of the Chinese government. Thondup even married a Chinese lady for love and intended to stay there until his responsibilities towards the Dalai Lama beckoned him. The dream was shattered by the revolution and the breakout of the civil war. As Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, he advised Thondup to go back to Tibet. Interestingly, in those days the closest way between Lhasa and Nanjing was through India. The mountains did not permit direct travel.

By the time Thondup arrived in Kalimpong on his way to Lhasa, the situation in Tibet had become very uncertain. Reting Regent was imprisoned and subsequently killed by his successor Reting Rimpoche. His hostility extended towards the Thondup family too. Hence, he was advised by his mother to stay back in India. It was while he was stranded in India, that Thondup found his true calling, that of a diplomat.

He was approached by both the Indian and the US government for his experience and views on the Chinese, both the deposed Kuomintang as well as the Communists. Both countries, especially the US, convinced Thondup that the Tibetans needed to resist the Communists and the US was willing to help.

As is the American practice, Thondup and his Chinese wife were invited to the US to pursue higher education. Communist China had already invaded eastern Tibet and forced the Tibetan government to sign the 1951 17-Point Agreement. While Chiang Kai-shek paid for his travel, the US government offered him a four-year, fully paid scholarship at Stanford University. Thondup declined the scholarship and returned to India within a few months so that he could go back to Tibet. However, his contacts with the US state department remained.

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