Across Many Mountains: Three Daughters of Tibet by Yangzom Brauen and Katy Darbyshire (translator)

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Across Many Mountains: Three Daughters of Tibet by Yangzom Brauen and Katy Darbyshire (translator)

Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: Using the lives of three generations of Tibetan women, Yangzom Brauen personalises the story of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the resulting diaspora. Heartbreaking and uplifting.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-1846553448

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Fleeing your home can never be easy but when you are six, your only shoes are roughly hand-sewn and stuffed with hay, and your route is over the world's highest mountain range then it must be particularly challenging. This was the journey that Yangzom Brauen's mother took with her parents when they fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion of 1959. They were leaving behind all that they knew and travelling to India in the hope that they could find sanctuary in the country where the Dalai Lama was in exile. 'Across Many Mountains' is their story.

Kunsang Wangmo, the author's grandmother, might have been the youngest nun in Tibet. Her story is a story of Old Tibet. Through her, we learn about a society which no longer exists. We find out about the Tibetan ritual of sky burial. We experience village life, so high in the inhospitable Himalayas. Above all, we are told about the life of a Buddhist nun: the rituals, the chants and prayers, the beliefs, the gurus, the daily life of a monastery. This is a country where there were no wheeled vehicles before the Chinese army came, where there were no roads, no 'iron birds' (aeroplanes), no doctors and where writing only existed for sacred texts. It was a Buddhist kingdom where every living creature was respected and where everyone was born into their position. It was no paradise, but it is certainly not a paradise now. When the Chinese invaded, aristocrats, monks and nuns were particular targets. The monasteries were destroyed, the society fragmented and religion outlawed. It was no longer safe for Kunsang, her monk husband and their family. They decided to take the perilous route over the mountains to India.

Without wishing to spoil the story, the rest of the book is taken up with their exile. They do manage to get to India. Their impressions of this country – the heat, the lack of water, the sickness, the inequalities – are fascinating. Refugee life is tough. They spend some back-breaking years on road-building sites smashing stones by hand with hammers. The author's mother Sonam grows up in old Colonial hill stations in the mountains. She does manage to scratch an education, alongside trying to work to survive. Then her life takes a fairytale turn.

This is a book about an extraordinary physical and mental journey that seems almost inconceivable in one woman's lifetime. Kunsang, the author's grandmother, has journeyed from a vanished near-Medieval kingdom to a life in a modern Western country, yet she is still a Buddhist nun, she still slips her one hundred and eight prayer beads through her fingers as she murmers her prayers. Her granddaughter is an actress living in Los Angeles, who uses the internet to mobilise support for her pro-Tibet activism. If the Chinese had not invaded, she would be living in the small village of Pang in southern Tibet.

This is a fascinating story on many levels. There cannot be many such detailed accounts of the life of a Tibetan nun. There have been numerous books about Tibet by foreigners observing the society but this is an insight into the real workings of Tibet by an insider. Equally, the account of the women's lives as refugees in India is valuable and moving.

The book is not a work of great literature. It is a collection of memories, but those memories have been treasured like the magical Tibetan 'dzi' stones that are often their owner's most valued possessions. Although sometimes as a reader I would have liked more information, the power of the book lies in the very personal nature of the story. Like Jung Chang's 'Wild Swans', this book manages to bring to life a period of history in a far-flung country that few of us know as well as we should.

The book is also a passionate polemic, a cry to free a country that has suffered so greatly under Chinese oppression, and is suffering still. I hope that this book, like 'Wild Swans', becomes a bestseller. I hope this, for the sake of Tibet.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun, The Open Road by Pico Iyer, Falling to Heaven by Jeanne Peterson and Murder in the High Himalaya by Jonathan Green.

Buy Across Many Mountains: Three Daughters of Tibet by Yangzom Brauen and Katy Darbyshire (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Across Many Mountains: Three Daughters of Tibet by Yangzom Brauen and Katy Darbyshire (translator) at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Across Many Mountains: Three Daughters of Tibet by Yangzom Brauen and Katy Darbyshire (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Across Many Mountains: Three Daughters of Tibet by Yangzom Brauen and Katy Darbyshire (translator) at Amazon.com.


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