Book review: The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong - Dalai Lama's brother pens a memoir

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:54pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:54pm

The Potala Palace of seven decades ago was both sacred and profane. When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama arrived in Lhasa in 1939 to take up residence as a four-year-old, the winter seat of religious and administrative life was saturated with centuries of monks burning butter lamps and overrun with mice feasting on altar offerings.

It was also riddled with intrigue and could be a dangerous place even for a revered child. In his memoir, The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong, Gyalo Thondup, an elder brother of the man who became today's Dalai Lama, tells how several of his sibling's predecessors never reached adulthood or died in mysterious circumstances.

But the lofty palace was also the backdrop for the young monk's strict life of study, "play, meditation, memorisation, meals and tea", helping turn the previously unremarkable toddler from Amdo into "the man of greatness that he was to become".

The palace was at the centre of what Tibet once was, a homeland where myth could define reality and the remedy for tragedy was ritual and prayer. In his account of home and exile, Gyalo writes the deaths of his newborn siblings were blamed on a cat ghost and "so many children died in infancy that we had no special ceremonies to mark their passing". It was a place where a fatal infection of the family's mules was a harbinger and nature provided more wild strawberries and raspberries than any child could possibly eat.

If the mules were omens, they were a mixed blessing - the family's fortunes change dramatically for the better when a search party identifies Lhamo Thondup as the reincarnation of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. But the announcement propels the boy and his immediate relatives onto the frontline of modern Tibetan history and ultimately into exile as resistance to Chinese rule becomes a revolt.

For Gyalo Thondup, it means the start of a journey that takes him to India for refuge, Hong Kong for a window seat on the turmoil in China, and Beijing for negotiations. That struggle for Tibet brings him face to face with some of the 20th century's central political figures, including Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. It also brings him in contact with the CIA.

The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong is by turns heartbreaking, gripping and a little laboured. In 2002, 50 years after his flight, Gyalo Thondup returns to Tibet for the first time, shadowed by his United Front Work Department minders. Being there was numbing. "Everything had changed. Only the mountains and rivers were the same."

The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong by Gyalo Thondup (PublicAffairs)